Saturday, May 26, 2007

'Assurances from the governor's office' provide cold comfort for TTC opponents

Legislators target filibuster threat to the state budget


Peggy Fikac, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Working against the clock and the distraction of efforts to unseat the House speaker, lawmakers Saturday finished bills to phase out the high-stakes Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in high school and put a moratorium on most new private toll roads.

As those measures and others were sent to Gov. Rick Perry, however, a vote on the state budget was delayed until today as leaders hustled to address a threatened filibuster that could doom it.

The $152.5 billion, two-year spending plan for the state is the only measure lawmakers must pass. Leaving its consideration until shortly before Monday's adjournment leaves it vulnerable to being killed if an opponent talks long enough to stall a vote until the deadline to pass it.

Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, threatened a filibuster because he said the budget doesn't properly fund indigent health care at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston's hospital and others that are similarly situated.

"I don't want to be the spoiler at the picnic. ... I'm left with no other options," Janek said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said they were working on Janek's concerns. Dewhurst said he thought it would be resolved.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, also said he was thinking about a filibuster because budget-writers took out a provision to require more state review of an improvement plan for Texas Southern University before the school can get certain state funds.

Lawmakers did finish work in other areas, despite an effort to unseat House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, that continued throughout the day.

In public education, they gave a final OK to Senate Bill 1031 to replace the TAKS test for high school students and replace it with end-of-course exams starting with 9th grade students in the 2011-2012 school year. The end-of-course tests will cover English, math, science and social studies.

Lawmakers gave final approval to a compromise transportation bill that includes a two-year moratorium on most private-company toll roads in Texas. Senate Bill 792 was designed to satisfy Perry, who had vetoed an earlier transportation bill.

The moratorium prohibits private toll roads on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 projects in San Antonio.

Anti-toll road groups urged legislators to kill the bill, contending that it lacked teeth and would not put enough brakes on the powerful Texas Department of Transportation.

But Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who pushed for the moratorium, told colleagues that she got assurances from the governor's office that no work would go forward on the Trans Texas Corridor except on Loop 9 in the Dallas area.

On taxes, lawmakers gave their final approval to a revamp of the state's new business tax that backers said fixes mistakes made when it was passed last year and give an extra break to small businesses, which would be particularly hard-hit when the tax starts next year.

On crime and its victims, lawmakers a day earlier approved House Bill 1751 that would raise $25 million for sexual assault programs by charging customers of strip clubs a fee of $5. Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, championed the measure.

On religion, a bill to allow students to express religious viewpoints in public schools and to protect school districts from lawsuits against granting students religious freedom was resurrected.

House Bill 3678 by Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, had died when he didn't get the necessary margin of support, but it passed when he brought it up a second time Saturday.

"I think people were crazed out of their minds," Howard said before the bill was reconsidered. "They were not thinking about legislation They were going after the speaker."

On the Children's Health Insurance Program, negotiators on a bill to expand coverage said they reached agreement on provisions that will allow nearly 130,000 more children to be added to the program for families who cannot afford private insurance but don't qualify for Medicaid.

Janet Elliott and Kristen Mack contributed to this report.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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