Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Rep. Mike Krusee files massive transportation bill

Bills are already causing clashes

Two months ahead of session, ideas on moment of silence, abortion spark dissent

November 13, 2002

Ken Herman, David Pasztor,
American-Statesman Staff
Austin American-Statesman

The process of translating campaign promises into legislation began Tuesday as lawmakers began stuffing bills into the front end of the Capitol meat grinder.

What comes out the other end will be determined during the 140 days of the Texas Legislature's 78th regular session that begins Jan. 14.

Tuesday's opening day of bill prefiling included efforts by Republicans, who will control both chambers for the first time since 1870, to mandate a daily moment of silence in public schools, ban same-sex marriages and require doctors to show color photos of unborn fetuses to women considering abortions.

The moment of silence bill was filed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. A similar measure was filed in the House by Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio. Each bill would require schools to set aside 60 seconds for students to "reflect, pray, meditate or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student."

Samantha Smoot, director of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes efforts it thinks violate church-state separation, said the Wentworth and McClendon bills offered "a moderate approach to the school prayer issue."

"But we are concerned that the legislation invites amendments from far-right legislators anxious to instate mandatory, government-sponsored prayer in Texas public schools," she said.

A Dallas Democrat, Rep. Steve Wolens, was the first to toss a tax-increase bill into the mix. Wolens wants to add 50 cents to the 41-cent-per-pack levy on cigarettes.

Money will be a key issue next year as lawmakers try to craft a balanced two-year budget in the face of a projected shortfall of $5 billion to $12 billion.

Other ideas lobbed into the Capitol included requiring 5-year-olds to go to school (compulsory education now begins at 6 in Texas ), no-interest loans for college students who maintain a B average or better, and allowing the death penalty for murders linked to terrorism.

A priority of Gov. Rick Perry got its legislative start Tuesday as Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, filed bills to help make good on Perry's campaign promise to build a 4,000-mile Trans Texas Corridor , including major new highways, pipelines and railways at a cost of $175 billion.

Perry has said his plan could be financed by an infusion of private and federal money.

By the time the session ends, the House and Senate will consider thousands of bills.

In 2001, 8,847 pieces of legislation of various types (proposed laws, proposed constitutional amendments, measures honoring people who died, measures honoring people who didn't die) were filed.

A total of 4,631 measures won approval. Only 1,809 of those were bills that required and got the signature of Perry, who set a record by vetoing 82 measures in a single regular session.

The opening shot in what is shaping up as a contentious battle over tort reform and rising premiums for medical malpractice insurance was fired Tuesday by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, whose bill would cap the amount of money plaintiffs can win in malpractice lawsuits. Nelson's bill, which already has four co-sponsors, would limit noneconomic damages for things such as pain and suffering to $250,000.

The bill also would limit the fees attorneys can earn in malpractice cases, and would allow juries to consider whether a plaintiff has other sources of money -- such as disability payments or insurance -- when deciding how much to award.

Nelson's bill closely tracks the wishes of the Texas Medical Association, which blames out-of-control lawsuit costs for rising insurance rates, which it says are prompting some doctors to leave their practices.

"We are very excited and supportive of Senator Nelson's bill," said association Executive Vice President Lou Goodman. "It is in line with the package of reforms we are looking for."

At a news conference rolling out the legislation, Nelson said "patients are finding themselves abandoned because their health-care provider has been forced out of business due to the exploding costs of liability insurance."

But critics said Nelson's bill is built on a flawed premise. The problem, they said, is the insurance companies, not lawsuits.

"Statistics show that the number of doctors in Texas are rising while the number of medical malpractice claims are decreasing," said Dan Lambe, executive director of Texas Watch. "Why are the premiums still going up, and why aren't we forcing insurance companies to open their books and justify their rates?"

Jack McGehee, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, vowed to fight the bill "until the last dog dies."

A companion bill by Nelson also would beef up the state Board of Medical Examiners in its efforts to weed out bad doctors.

Doctors who perform abortions would be required to ensure that women are given a range of literature -- including color photographs of unborn fetuses -- before going ahead with the procedure under a bill filed by Rep. Frank Corte Jr., R-San Antonio.

Among other things, Corte's bill would require the Texas Department of Health to produce literature about the medical risks of abortion, adoption possibilities, financial assistance available to expectant mothers, and the father's liability for child support. The information must also include detailed descriptions and pictures of a fetus's development in two-week increments.

Abortion providers would be required to make sure patients read the literature, and that they sign forms indicating they have done so.

Kae McLaughlin, executive director of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, called Corte's bill fundamentally misguided.

"It's not necessary," she said. "It can be cruel to give extraneous information to a woman who would prefer to be able to have her child. And it's totally lopsided information."

By the same reasoning, McLaughlin said, doctors also should be required to provide literature about the medical risks of continuing a pregnancy.; 445-1718

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