From AP REPORTS
AUSTIN - More small businesses would be exempt from the state's new business tax under legislation tentatively adopted Tuesday in the Texas House.
Lawmakers are having to revisit last year's business tax overhaul to fix multiple errors and potential loopholes. The Legislature adopted the tax bill last spring during a special session to revamp the state's method of paying for public schools.
The House voted 144-1 in favor of the bill. Final approval is expected Wednesday, before the measure is eligible for consideration in the Senate.
As the House began cumbersome debate on the lengthy bill, the presence of state business interests was heavy. The House gallery and nearby hallways were more crowded than usual, abuzz with lobbyists.
Small businesses won a sought-after victory in the House bill, which raised the threshold of taxable revenue from $300,000 to $600,000. Still, small business interests were disappointed that the tax would not be eased in years that businesses are not profitable.
The tax takes effect this year and the first due date is May 2008.
Lawmakers sifted through reams of amendments Tuesday, each arguing for changes in the bill deemed unfair or overly burdensome.
In one change, the House agreed to end a fee that has been appearing cell phone bills from Sprint Nextel Corp. The fee, called the "Texas Margins Tax Reimbursement," seeks reimbursement for the business tax from cell phone users.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called the 1 percent fee deceptive and filed a lawsuit against the Reston, Va.-based Sprint Nextel Corp. The case is pending.
The measure approved by a 131-14 vote would make such fee collections due to the state in addition to their regular tax liability.
"Back when we passed this tax it was not a consumer tax - you and I didn't have the guts to pass a consumer tax," said Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, arguing in favor of the Sprint amendment. "This one company comes along and just unilaterally starts adding on a charge. If you're the customer and you don't like it you can't do any thing about it because you can't get out of contract. All I'm asking you here is to stand up for your constituents."
Republican Gov. Rick Perry, pondering how to stop the kind of mass killing that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech, said Monday he believes Texans should be allowed to carry their concealed handguns anywhere.
Under current law, secured airport areas, hospitals, courthouses, bars, churches and schools are among the places where weapons can be banned, even if someone has a state license to carry a concealed handgun, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Perry said he opposes any restrictions.
"The last time I checked, putting a sign up that says 'Donít bring your weapons in here,' someone who has ill intent on their mind - they could care less," Perry said. "I think it makes sense for Texans to be able to protect themselves from deranged individuals, whether they're in church or whether on a college campus or wherever."
Perry made the remarks at a news conference after meeting with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to discuss ways to prevent mass shootings and enhance school safety. The discussion stems from President Bush's drive to find solutions to such tragedies in the wake of the carnage at Virginia Tech.
About 260,000 Texans who have undergone mandatory background checks and training are licensed to carry a concealed weapon, records show.
In the last fiscal year, 180 licenses were revoked and 493 were suspended for unknown reasons.
The House rejected the Senate's version of "Jessica's Law," a get-tough bill aimed at sexual predators that includes a possible death penalty. A conference committee made up of House and Senate members now will try to work out a compromise.
"All of the concerns are minor," said Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, who sponsored the bill in the House. "This is a good bill. I think we need to polish it."
The Senate version includes a provision that carries a possible death penalty for those who are twice convicted of raping children under 14.
House members approved a bill designed to crack down on sex offenders who repeatedly prey on children by creating a new category of crime - continual sexual abuse of a young child or children. It carries a minimum of 25 years to life in prison and possibly the death penalty for a second offense.
The bill is named after Jessica Lunsford, a Florida girl who was abducted and killed. More than a dozen states have passed versions of Jessica's Law.
Without debate, the House gave its final approval on a 121-10 vote Tuesday to a bill that sponsors say is intended to make sure public school students know they have the freedom of religious expression on campus.
Students couldn't be penalized or rewarded because of the religious content of their work or religious expression at school. The measure also requires schools to establish a "limited public forum" for free expression at all school events during which students speak.
TEXAS TOMORROW FUND
prepaid college tuition program would be re-established under a plan given final House approval on Tuesday. The plan, known as the Texas Tomorrow Fund II, won easy passage.
The original Texas Tomorrow Fund has been closed to new participants since the Legislature deregulated tuition rates in 2003. It let parents invest in their young children's future college while locking in current prices.
SCHOOL BUS SAFETY
Seat belts would be required on school buses under a measure easily approved by the House on Tuesday. The bill applies to buses purchased on or after Sept. 1, 2010. The Senate has similar legislation pending.
On the eve of another House debate on gambling, leaders of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of East Texas on Tuesday urged the legalization of casinos on American Indian land to spur economic growth.
"We believe legislation to allow gaming on our reservation is a lifeline for our community," said Jo Ann Battise, chairwoman for the Alabama-Coushatta tribal council.
Tribal officials have been in Austin for weeks meeting with lawmakers. They chose to speak again publicly at a news conference before a bill by Rep. Norma Chavez, an El Paso Democrat, comes before the House on Wednesday. Her bill was temporarily sidelined last week on a technical point raised by a gambling opponent.
The measure to create a defense to prosecution for gambling activities on federally recognized Indian lands would cover both the Tigua and the Alabama-Coushatta tribes in Texas.
HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
The Senate confirmed the reappointment of Albert Hawkins, the state's health and human services chief.
Although criticized for his handling of the state's ambitious effort to privatize its social services eligibility system, Hawkins was confirmed on a 24-7 vote.
Several of the senators who voted against him said the agency had been a failure under Hawkins' leadership.
"Anyone who watched and heard the performance of this agency over the last four years would have to vote 'no' if they want responsible government," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who noted problems that led to the death of Devante Johnson of Houston. Johnson died in March from kidney cancer. Problems with the eligibility system forced him to go without health insurance for four months.
But several senators spoke up in support of Hawkins as a good man who deserved to stay on the job.
"He does everything in his power, everything the law requires, everything he can to make sure the people get the services," said Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he intends to move forward quickly on a bill that would require Texas voters to show photo identification or two other forms of identification at the polling place.
He said he has given Democratic Sen. Mario Gallegos the advance notice he requested that the bill was going to come up in the Senate.
Gallegos, who is recovering from a liver transplant, announced last week that he was invoking the so-called "Luna precedent" so he can fight the bill. First used by the late Democratic Sen. Gregory Luna, the maneuver lets an ill senator have a 24-hour notice before a particular measure comes up for debate.
Gellegos missed much of the first four months of the legislative session but has regularly attended Senate meetings for about a week.
Dewhurst said he probably won't bring the bill up Wednesday but could do it later this week. He said he believes he has enough votes to push the measure through the Senate.
Opponents say the voter ID proposal would discourage voting and discriminate against the elderly and minorities, who are less likely to have the required identification.
Supporters contend the measure will crack down on voter impersonation, preventing non-eligible residents and illegal immigrants from voting.
The House agreed Tuesday with Senate changes to a bill requiring state health officials to distribute information about the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer. The materials would be printed in English and Spanish.
Next, the bill by Democratic Rep. Joe Deshotel of Beaumont goes to Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry issued an order earlier this year requiring a vaccine against the HPV virus for Texas school girls. In a separate bill, legislators rejected Perry's HPV vaccine order, blocking state officials from requiring the shots for at least four years.
The Senate refused Tuesday to agree with changes the House made to a bill limiting the percent of electric generation capacity a power company can own or control, sending the measure to a House-Senate conference committee to work out a compromise.
House members approved a bill limiting a company's share of electric generation in a specific area to 40 percent, with some exceptions for nuclear energy and clean-burning coal.
The Senate's version, considered stronger, would limit control to 25 percent in a region and force companies to divest some holdings if they surpass that level.
"The amendments put on in the House weaken the bill," said Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who led the Senate effort.
The measure most affects Dallas-based TXU Corp., the state's largest power generator.
The Senate approved a bill giving journalists limited privilege against being forced to testify in court or disclose confidential sources.
Dubbed the "Free Flow of Information Act," the bill had struggled to win support of lawmakers concerned it would hinder prosecutors' ability to gather evidence in criminal cases.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the bill is needed to protect confidential sources who might not come forward with valuable information for fear of being exposed. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. The legislative session is scheduled to end May 28.
News groups lobbied for the bill as necessary to protect sources and rein in prosecutors who might try to the media as an investigative arm of their office.
Under state law, a journalist who promises confidentiality to a source - and then refuses a judicial order to identify the person - could be jailed for contempt of court.
The bill would require a judge to apply specific tests to determine whether a journalist's information is essential as evidence in a civil or criminal case.
Although journalists could still be ordered to testify in some cases, the bill provides the first guidelines for judges to consider when ruling on a prosecutors' subpoena.
STATE SPENDING SEARCHES
The House gave tentative approval Friday to a bill that creates a "one stop shop" on the Internet where Texans can look up detailed state government expenditures.
Sponsored by Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, and several other lawmakers of both parties, the measure is modeled after bipartisan federal legislation passed last year.
It would create a single database allowing users to search and aggregate expenditure data. The Web site would be prominently featured on the TexasOnline portal to state government services and would be maintained by the comptroller's office.
"Direct citizen access to information has already created a powerful additional check and balance on government and the media," Strama said.
A proposal to add the words "under God" to the Texas state pledge ran into opposition in the House on Friday. Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Houston Republican, attempted to add those words to the pledge in a bill placed on the local and consent calendar, meant for locally oriented or non-controversial measures.
"Is this really a local bill?" Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth asked, raising an objection. Riddle later removed the bill from the day's debate.
OWNERS OF VIOLENT DOGS
Efforts to crack down on violent dog attacks stalled in the Senate on Thursday as some lawmakers questioned whether owners should face prison time for the actions of their dogs.
The bill by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, would charge a dog owner with a third-degree felony - punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a possible $10,000 fine - if the dog makes an unprovoked attack and seriously injures the victim.
If the victim dies, the crime would be a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The House gave final approval to a similar bill by Rep. Dan Gattis on Wednesday. But after about an hour of debate, the Senate delayed voting on the proposal for a few days.
Current law calls for punishments ranging from a $500 fine to one year in jail. And for a dog owner to be charged, the dog must have been classified as dangerous from a previous incident - a provision critics call "one free bite." The measures by both lawmakers would charge the owner after the first attack.
"We have issues increasingly across the state where real lives are being affected by this," Shapleigh said.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he wasn't comfortable sentencing people to prison for a dog's actions when they might not have known the dog was dangerous.
While Shapleigh said it's easy for prosecutors to tell the difference between a dangerous pit bull and a harmless Pekinese, Duncan wasn't appeased.
"If we're talking Class C misdemeanor and jail time, that's one thing, but prison time seems to me to be too heavy of a remedy for this more or less vague standard in this law," Duncan said.
Sen. Steve Ogden, a Republican from Bryan, said the proposal is fair because the dog's attack would be a direct result of the owner's failure to control the animal.
But Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, questioned who would face criminal charges if multiple people lived in the house with the dog. For example, Harris asked what would happen if a 10-year-old girl accidentally let her older sister's dog out of their parents' house while the sister was away at college.
Harris and Duncan said they would work with Shapleigh on amendments to address their concerns.
The bills by Shapleigh and Gattis were largely inspired by the November 2005 death of 76-year-old Lillian Stiles, who was attacked by six dogs after getting off her riding lawn mower at her home near Thorndale, about 40 miles northeast of Austin.
Throughout the debate, Stiles' husband and daughter watched from the Senate gallery, occasionally standing up or shaking their heads. Marilyn Stiles Shoemaker said she hopes the felony punishment stays in the bill.
"If it's a misdemeanor, we don't feel like people are going to take notice and make sure that they are being responsible dog owners," she said.
The dogs that attacked Stiles had not been declared dangerous. Their owner, Jose Hernandez, was found not guilty of criminally negligent homicide last month. He had faced up to two years in a state jail for the felony charge.
The dog attack bills are SB411 and HB1355.
TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD
The Senate voted to boost the benefits for Texas National Guard members killed in combat from $21,000 to $250,000.
"These brave men and women have made a sacrifice for their families, their state and their country that we can never repay," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat how sponsored the measure. "This bill allows the state of Texas to express its gratitude for the sacrifice paid by fellow Texans who die in the line of duty to protect our freedom."
At least 10 Texas Guard members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ellis' office said. The benefits boost would be retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
The Senate passed a bill allowing local health departments to start needle-sharing programs to help reduce the spread of disease by intravenous drug use.
Texas has more than 56,000 people living with the virus that causes AIDS and more than 300,000 cases of Hepatitis C, two diseases associated with sharing dirty needles, said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, the bill's sponsor and a family physician.
"Needle-exchange programs were once thought to be a radical idea," Deuell said, adding that research shows that as many as 20 percent of addicts who participate in needle-sharing programs also seek drug-treatment programs.
"We talk a lot about prevention. There is no good reason for our state to continue to refuse to do what we know clearly works. They do not encourage drug use," Deuell said.
Single- and two-family homes in Texas would be required to have a smoke detector before they could be sold under a Senate bill passed Thursday.
The bill was filed by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte after former Sen. Frank Madla was killed last year in a house fire in San Antonio.
Smoke detection equipment would be required in all new homes built after Jan. 1, 2008, and be put in older homes before they could be sold.
The House gave its final approval Thursday to a bill that would restore the System Benefit Fund to provide utility bill discounts for low-income Texans. The fund was created in 1999, but in 2005 lawmakers started using money from the fund for other purposes.
Supporters of legalizing casino gambling in Texas showed up at a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday to urge that Texas get a share of Texans' wagering.
"Texans are already voting with their feet and going out of state. It's time for our state to reap the significant economic benefits and use that revenue to help Texas students go to college," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat and co-sponsor of proposed casino legislation.
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, also is sponsoring the legislation that would give Texans the right to vote on a constitutional amendment authorizing destination resort casinos and dedicating $1 billion annually to a college tuition fund.
Texans are spending more than $10 billion per year on gambling, much of it at casinos in other states, Carona said.
Economist Ray Perryman says casino gambling in Texas would create up to 400,000 jobs and generate about $4.5 billion in state and local revenue.
Legislation specifying that state, not local, officials should be the ones to sell seized illegal gambling equipment won final House approval on Thursday. The bill by Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Houston, is aimed at making sure the gambling devices don't end up back in the local communities where they were confiscated.
The measure provides for a portion of the sale proceeds to be given to the counties where the machines were seized.
Police officers could not be sued for injuring or killing an innocent bystander while chasing a criminal under a bill the Senate approved Thursday.
The officer would have to be following their department's policy on pursuits and could not have acted recklessly, said Sen. Dan Patrick, the bill's sponsor.
"If they are doing their job under the policy guidelines they have been given Ö they should be protected from lawsuits," said Patrick, a Republican from suburban Houston.
NOT TOO LATE
Forty-three years after it became part of the U.S. Constitution, Texas has moved a step closer to ratifying the 24th Amendment, which banned any poll tax in elections for federal officials.
The Texas House voted unanimously to tentatively approve a state constitutional amendment post-ratifying the 24th Amendment.
"We can tell our grandchildren Ö that we are a part of the abolishment of the poll tax," said Rep. Alma Allen, a Houston Democrat who authored the legislation.
The measure still has to be approved by the Senate and Texas voters.
To become part of the U.S. Constitution, three-fourths of the states must vote to ratify an amendment. The ban on poll taxes was added to the Constitution in 1964. Texas was one of 12 states that did not ratify the measure after Congress adopted it in 1962.
Rep. David Swinford's bill to allocate $100 million for border security was scheduled for a House vote but was sent back to committee on a technicality. It was again voted out of committee on Monday and could be back before the full House later this week.
House Bill 13 by the Amarillo Republican would put the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, in charge of the controversial Texas Data Exchange database, part of Gov. Rick Perry's border security initiatives.
Swinford's bill also creates a three-member committee to decide how border security money is spent.
The Senate voted to expand HIV testing in the state prison system. Inmates are already tested by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice upon release and can submit to a voluntary testing program when they start their sentences.
Although most submit to the early tests, not all do. The bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston would require testing all inmates when they report to prison.