AUSTIN - The Texas House of Representatives has passed House Bill 12, by Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, which dedicates all sporting goods sales tax collections to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission to support state parks, local parks and historic sites.

“The measures in House Bill 12 provide a long term funding allocation plan for these two great agencies. House budget conferees will be diligent in their efforts to ensure that this infusion of resources is appropriated as they work with the Senate on House Bill 1," said Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. “I would like to thank Rep. Hilderbran for developing a plan that allocates the necessary resources to the Parks and Wildlife Department and the Historical Commission so these agencies are able to focus on what they do best.”

HB12 lifts the cap imposed during previous sessions on revenue dedicated to the TPWD from the sporting goods tax. Currently, TPWD is only allocated $32 million out of the roughly $100 million the tax raises annually. By lifting this cap, more than $215 million will be allocated to TPWD over the next biennium.

“I am very pleased that an overwhelming majority of my colleagues understood the necessity of addressing the crisis facing our Texas parks,” Hilderbran said. “The passage of House Bill 12 is a crucial first step in fixing the problems in our park system and returning it to the beacon system in the nation. House Bill 12 will restore excellence to the Texas park system by removing the funding cap, improving management practices and increasing local park funding opportunities, which will help increase revenue and traffic to Texas parks and historic sites and provide the kind of experience that will bring visitors back.”

HB12 also transfers management of 18 historic sites from the TPWD to the THC along with more than $13 million to operate these sites during the next biennium. The transfers will give these historic sites more individualized attention from the THC. The THC specializes in historic preservation and manages some of the most effective preservation programs in the nation, including the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the Texas Main Street Program and the Texas Heritage Trails program. The tourism these historic sites attract is a particularly strong contribution to the state's economy, making it imperative that these sites are being used to their full potential as economic development tools.

Top 10 percent changes pass Senate

Sweeping changes to the state's automatic college admission program, called the top 10 percent rule, are headed over to the House with the Senate’s Friday approval of a compromise measure. The top 10 rule, which grants automatic admission to any state university to students that graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, has been a controversial measure in recent sessions. Proponents of the plan say it has increased diversity, not only racially, but economically and geographically. Critics say it restricts admissions officers, forcing them to consider only one criteria, grade point average.

Officials at the University of Texas at Austin have lobbied for change, saying 71 percent of the most recent freshman class was admitted under the rule. They point to a day where the only criterion considered for admission at UT is GPA. Friday’s compromise would cap admissions under the top 10 percent rule, which Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said is good for UT and good for students.

“This is a good idea that will increase diversity at the University of Texas at Austin and give a more holistic approach to the selection for a lot of deserving students,” he said.

Senate Bill 101, by Education Committee chairman Florence Shapiro, would cap admissions under the top 10 rule to 50 percent of an incoming freshman class. Then admissions officers would select another 10 percent of that class from remaining top 10 applicants using a broader selection criteria. The last 40 percent could be admitted under a traditional holistic review process. Students who qualify for automatic admission that don’t get into their first choice of school because of the cap get admission at their second choice university. Also, in order to qualify, students must take at least the recommended high school curriculum.

The bill was amended by Sen. Royce West of Dallas, one of the biggest supporters of the top ten percent rule, to sunset the changes in 2015, to ensure that admissions officials are still making diversity a top priority. Under this program, if it becomes law, universities would be given the option of participating. The only university where top ten admissions exceed 50 percent of the freshman class is UT-Austin, but Texas A&M enrolled 44 percent of last year's freshmen under automatic admissions.

A major amendment was added by Finance Committee chairman Steve Ogden, that would waive the statutory tuition, set at $51 per semester credit hour at state schools, for high school students that graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. This will translate to savings of about $1,500 per year for a student who qualifies. Ogden said the change will encourage state schools to go out and recruit top 10 percent students, because the state’s higher education funding formula will pay universities more money for students that don’t have to pay statutory tuition.

Also this week, the Senate approved a bill aimed at giving more property tax relief to cities and counties in Texas. This bill would allow city and county jurisdictions to increase the sales tax by 0.25 percent each, for a total of 0.5 percent, with that money dedicated to lowering local property tax rates, if approved by local voters. It also changes the rollback provision from 8 to 5 percent, meaning voters get to vote to reduce property tax increases if they exceed 5 percent in one year.

Bill author Senator Kevin Eltife of Tyler said this could lead to real savings for property tax payers.

“This could provide meaningful property tax relief for cities and counties if the voters approve it,” he said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst congratulated the Senate for passing Senate Bill 407, which gives voters the ability to reduce local property taxes and has the effect of reducing the amount of revenue cities and counties can raise without gaining the consent of residents in that city or county.

“I hope everyone realizes the importance of what author Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and the Senate did today by giving local taxpayers a greater say in how much money their local governments take from them and how much those governments spend," Dewhurst said.

SB407 reduces the rollback rate from 8 percent to 5 percent, lowering the threshold for voters to trigger a rollback election as a result of increased revenue collections by a city or county. This revenue cap would apply only to cities and counties where voters approve a one-quarter cent local sales tax increase for an equal reduction in local property taxes.

"I hope the House will help us place this tool in the hands of hard working taxpayers who want to give local voters the ability to reduce their property taxes and at the same time reduce the revenue cap to 5 percent," Dewhurst said.

Other legislation passed by the Senate last week includes SB 966, by Ellis, which would grant limited protection to journalists to keep confidential sources confidential.

State honors Gallegos as governor for a day

The state continued its 50-year tradition of honoring presidents pro tem of the Senate with the swearing in of Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr. as governor for a day.

The president pro tem is elected by his peers at the beginning of each session, and stands third in line for the office of governor. Once a session, the governor and lt. governor leave the state for one day, officially making the president pro tem governor of Texas. This serves as an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments and public service of the president pro tem, as well as celebrating their district.

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo then by swearing in Mario Gallegos as governor of the state of Texas,” said Sen. John Whitmire, who emceed Saturday’s ceremony.

Gallegos has served in the Senate since 1995, after serving three years in the House. A former Houston firefighter, Gallegos is known for his representation of police officers and firefighters, as well as seniors, children and the needy.

Gallegos received a liver transplant at the beginning of the 80th session, which has kept him in Houston for most of the year under doctor’s orders. Gallegos returned to the Senate beginning with the vote on the state budget.

Independent Texans criticizes ‘bad bill’

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and recently passed by the Senate is “bad,” an Independent Texans press release says, describing Wentworth as “previously a champion of open records.”

Senate Bill 889 was set to be taken up in the House State Affairs Committee this morning.

The bill will significantly increase the financial costs to the public for accessing public information by allowing agencies to charge just for inspecting information, in addition to copying it, and capping the number of “free” pages that may be viewed at 100 per month, the release said, noting, “This bill will quash efforts by nonprofits, advocacy groups, citizens and journalists to report on and influence government activities.”

Linda Curtis, director of Independent Texans, and a longtime advocate for government accountability and reform said, “Sen. Wentworth, a champion of open records and redistricting reform, has raised concerns about the abuse of one group. That is not near enough reason to shut down the system we so desperately need in these times of growing partisanship (the redistricting debacle), the influence of special interests (the corridor/tolls), and outright government corruption.

“We have urged the senator to work with public interest groups to address the abuses, without harming the public good,” Curtis said, noting that calls from newspaper editors and citizens organizations across the state are being made to House State Affairs Committee members, including the chair of the committee, Rep. David Swinford, R-Amarillo.

Voting records monitored

Texans could monitor the voting records of their representatives in the Legislature under a measure passed by the Senate on Thursday.

House Joint Resolution 19, sponsored in the Senate by Dallas Sen. John Carona, would require both chambers to take a record vote on all bills, amendments and resolutions, excepting those where there is no objection.

Both houses would have to publish each vote online, and keep votes online for no less than two years. Generally, the Senate takes record votes of all contested measures, and Thursday’s resolution is aimed at creating consistency in the House and Senate as relates to voting policy. The Senate passed a similar measure last session, but it didn’t make it out of the House.

Also Thursday, the Senate approved a bill intended to keep dangerous e-waste out of landfills and dumps. Obsolete or broken electronic equipment, like computers and TVs, often find their way to standard trash disposal facilities. This equipment contains dangerous toxins, such as lead and mercury, that if not properly handled at a disposal facility can seep into the groundwater. SB1324, by Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, would require companies to provide free and accessible areas to recycle their own old products.

Senate passes court realignment plan

The Senate also approved a bill last week intended to streamline the Texas court system by changing most county courts-of-law to district courts.

SB1204, by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, would convert 45 county courts to district courts, and would give them jurisdiction over civil matters ranging from $100,000 to $250,000. Duncan said the state needs more conformity when it comes to court jurisdiction across Texas.

The bill also provides more money for courts when dealing with complex cases, allowing these courts access to funds to hire personnel and equipment when dealing with intricate matters. It would direct funds to reduce the backlog of Child Protective Service cases. Duncan said this is an overdue upgrade to the state’s justice system.

“I think this bill will improve our judiciary and efficiency in our court system,” he said.

Parents of chronically truant students would have an extra incentive to make sure their kids go to school under a bill also approved. SB217, by Plano Sen. Florence Shapiro, would increase penalties for parents that refuse to address constant truancy by charging them with a class B misdemeanor. Shapiro said some parents aren’t fazed by the current class C misdemeanor fines, and an additional level of punishment is needed. Parents wouldn’t have to worry that one or two incidents would land them in court: Judges would be free to consider extenuating circumstances. Also, the class B penalties only kick in after two prior class C citations at the maximum fine level.

Also passed Wednesday is a bill aimed at using new technology to help retailers keep minors from buying age-restricted products like alcohol and tobacco. A bill by Sen. Kip Averitt of Waco would allow retailers to require fingerprint identification to verify age for the purchase of age-restricted products. The bill statutorily prevents the dissemination of fingerprint information in order to prevent marketers or other companies from buying access to fingerprint databases.

Child sex abuse

The Senate passed a bill that would create a new criminal charge for people who repeatedly sexually abuse children.

The charge would apply if a person has committed two or more acts of sexual abuse in a 90-day period. The suspect must be over 17 and the victim or victims must be under 14.

The offense would be punishable by 25 years to life in prison.

A similar provision is included in the version of "Jessica's Law" that the Senate approved last month in an effort to crack down on sex offenders.

Children’s Health Insurance

About 40 advocates held a brief rally at the Capitol to urge the Senate to get moving on reforms to the Children's Health Insurance Program.

The Senate hasn't acted on a House bill that would let parents re-enroll in the program every year instead of every six months. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said last week he is working on a compromise to let children remain enrolled for a full year with electronic checks halfway through for families near the top of the income scale.

The community activists said Senate leaders need to act fast to make sure the bill has time to work its way through the process. The session ends May 28.

"We want it now," said Father Kevin Collins of The Metropolitan Organization in Houston.

Lawsuit settlements

The Senate approved a bill Monday prohibiting the attorney general from entering into a lawsuit settlement that totals more than $5 million, or $10 million over two years, without the Legislature's consent.

The proposal by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, would apply to future settlements like the recent one in the long-running Frew lawsuit over Medicaid care for poor children. That settlement, which still needs final court approval, will cost the state about $700 million.

Ogden's proposal wouldn't apply if a court orders the state to pay millions of dollars in a settlement. Senators approved the measure 28-3. It now moves to the House.

Texas primary

A Senate committee approved a proposal Tuesday to move Texas’ primary election up to February in 2008, potentially giving the state a much bigger say in the presidential sweepstakes.

The measure now moves to the full Senate, where it’s believed to have the votes needed for passage. The Senate State Affairs Committee approved the bill 6-3.

Democrats and Republicans have endorsed the plan, already approved by the House. It would move the Texas primary from the first Tuesday of March up to Feb. 5 next year.

Prosecutor assistance

The Texas attorney general would be authorized to offer assistance to local prosecutors who need help with criminal cases - without waiting for a request from the prosecutor - under legislation the Senate approved Tuesday. Existing law specifies that the attorney general is supposed to wait for a local request.

That law has come under scrutiny this spring amid sexual abuse allegations at a Texas Youth Commission facility in West Texas.

Attorney General Greg Abbott's office is now investigating the allegations. The district attorney in Ward County, where the TYC detention center is located, has said an investigation into the claims stalled because of a breakdown in communications.

Passing a cyclist

A motorist passing a bicyclist would have to move into another lane if there’s one available or pass at a safe distance of at least 3 feet under a bill the Senate tentatively approved Tuesday.

Existing Texas law requires motorists to pass at a safe distance, but Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said his legislation would define what that distance is.

About 50 bicyclists are killed each year in Texas, and about 40 percent of those are hit by motorists traveling in the same direction, Ellis said.

Republican Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston raised objections and asked Ellis repeatedly how he, as a motorist, would interpret the proposed law.

Explaining the options, Ellis said, "Maybe you ought to consider getting a taxi."

Small employers insurance

Small business owners would get help buying insurance for their employees under a bill the Senate passed Tuesday.

The bill by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, directs the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas Department of Insurance to create a premium assistance program for small employers.

The program would be limited to employees who make less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level - or about $62,000 a year for a family of four.

Pollution watch list

The Senate approved a measure Tuesday ensuring that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality maintain an “air pollutant watch list” so residents can find out if they live in an area that exceeds health standards.

“The legislation is a crucial first step to making sure that Texans everywhere have clean air to breathe,” said Sen. Mario Gallegos, a Houston Democrat who sponsored the legislation.