Saturday, June 09, 2007

Rep. Jim Pitts writes about the 80th Legislative Session


Capitol Update

June 9, 2007

Rep. Jim Pitts
The Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

The 80th session of the Texas Legislature has finally drawn to a close, giving me time to return home and visit with my friends and family.

I’ve also had time to reflect on the results of the past legislative session. While there were areas where this past legislative session fell short, there were also some notable accomplishments.

Property Tax Relief - Probably the most significant accomplishment of this session was delivering on the promise we made to voters more than two years ago that homeowners would see significant property tax relief.

This session, more than $14 billion in state funds were dedicated to help reduce local property taxes to $1, down from a statewide average of $1.50 just two years ago. In addition, on May 12, voters helped correct a glaring oversight from the last special session, extending this property tax relief to seniors and disabled homeowners.

Public Education - Following on the heels of multiple special sessions to address school finance and reform, it was clear that little, if any, major legislation dealing with public education would be taken up this session.

However, there were two notable items that will make a positive impact on our schools and teachers.

First, legislation that was passed ends the standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, replacing it with end-of-course exams in core subject areas in grades 9-12. This legislation was overwhelmingly supported by both educators and parents alike.

Second, funding for the Teachers Retirement System was increased to ensure the fund is actuarially sound, laying the groundwork for future annuity increases and eliminating any need for health insurance premium increases for active and retired teachers.

Most notably, legislation was passed that will provide retired educators a one-time “13th” check this year.

Criminal Justice - Not more than 30 days into the legislative session, news reports began to detail the horrible abuses happening at youth correctional facilities across the state.

The Legislature responded by passing significant reforms to overhaul the structure and operations of the Texas Youth Commission. Much of the senior management that sat by while abuses went without investigation or public disclosure was dismissed.

The reforms passed this session will ensure that only youth committing serious crimes will be sentenced to these facilities and, once there, will be put on a road to rehabilitation and not further incarceration.

In addition to addressing the problems at the Youth Commission, we were also able to pass legislation that will provide valuable resources to state and local law enforcement on the border and across the state.

Too many parts of our border have become havens for drug traffickers and hopefully this effort will give law enforcement some of the tools they need to take these areas back.

The Legislature also stepped up in strengthening penalties for child predators. “Jessica’s Law” makes sexual abuse of a child a capital offense in certain cases and imposes stronger minimum sentences for all cases.

Transportation - Transportation, most notably the Trans-Texas Corridor, was a major topic this session. Texans from all walks of life have voiced their concerns about the impact this project could have on rural Texas, and an overwhelming majority of the House and Senate responded by passing legislation that provides a two-year moratorium on comprehensive development agreements for projects such as the Trans-Texas Corridor.

This legislation also gives local public toll entities - not private investors - the first option to build transportation projects in their area.

Water - Water continues to be one of Texas’ most precious and contentious resources.
Legislation passed this session will help promote water conservation, study ways to balance the state’s needs to conserve while also addressing Texas’ growing population, and, perhaps most significantly, designates several sites for possible reservoir construction.

State Parks - Most of us have read the articles about the deteriorating condition of our state parks with years’ worth of repairs going incomplete and many parks having to scale back their hours and let staff go.

This session, we were able to dramatically increase funding for our state parks through the sporting goods sales tax. Legislation passed this session also transferred many historical sites from the Parks and Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission, allowing Parks and Wildlife to focus on its core mission of supporting our state parks and wildlife areas.
Despite these notable accomplishments, there were many areas where the legislature fell short.

While we were able to ensure that homeowners see property taxes reduced to $1, efforts to reduce these taxes even further were stymied.

While the Legislature was able to reward retired teachers and eliminate the TAKS test, other efforts at meaningful education reform went nowhere. I personally filed legislation (for the second time) that would have required the state to reevaluate the weights applied to school finance formulas - measures that have not been reexamined in more than 10 years.

Unfortunately, this legislation, or bills making similar efforts, was never granted a hearing.
While I was supportive of legislation that provides a two-year moratorium on the Trans-Texas Corridor, it is a shame that it took two different bills - and one gubernatorial veto - for this to pass. In fact, according to recent news reports, Gov. Perry still believes the issue of a moratorium is subject to debate and his staff is examining this legislation to see if there are any potential loopholes.

While it was important that our state parks receive additional funding and attention, it is unfortunate that, despite much of the campaign rhetoric last fall, we continue to see less than 100 percent of the sporting goods sales tax dedicated to our state parks.

Finally, in one of the biggest contradictions of the session, the bill that contained some of the Legislature’s greatest accomplishments also embodied much of what was wrong with this session.

Our state budget for the coming biennium contains many good things: funding for property tax cuts, increased funding for children’s health insurance and Medicaid, increased funding for the Teacher’s Retirement System, additional funding for a better air quality. But it also contains hundreds of millions of dollars in pork-barrel projects (much of it in higher education) that appear to be there for one reason alone: to help the speaker of the House remain in power.

I served on the Appropriations Committee for many years, culminating in serving as chairman last session. So voting against this bill, and speaking against many of these items, was extremely difficult to do.

There has always been and probably always will be some small amount of “pork” in the budget. That is just the reality of politics. But the sheer scale and amount in this budget were too much for me and other members to take.

Last December, I announced my bid for speaker of the House. I did so because I believed that the current leadership in the House was using that position of authority to manage the legislative process to the benefit of a few lobbyists and special interests, and not the needs of this state. I was disheartened to see members threatened or cajoled into voting for legislation that ran counter to the best interests of their districts.

I was disappointed to see an end to the important role committees and members play in the legislative process, being replaced by one office that micro-managed virtually every piece of legislation.

These are the reasons I decided to run for speaker in December and joined with many of my colleagues throughout the session in calling for new leadership. I believed then - as I do now - that the work of this chamber is too important and the issues facing this state are too great to be relegated to the decisions of one office and member.

I am glad this session has drawn to a close, and that there are successes we can point to for the work of the last five months. But more importantly, I’m looking forward to the future and the changes we can make next session that will improve this great state.

As always, thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve as your state representative, now and in the future.

Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, is state representative for District 10, which includes Ellis and Hill counties.

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