Highlights from the Texas Legislature

AUSTIN, Texas - Debating the most sweeping reform of college admissions policies in more than a decade, Texas senators approved legislation Tuesday that would end automatic entry to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

Practically speaking, most students who make the top 10 percent cut would still be able to get into a public Texas college - some college - for years. But the University of Texas at Austin, where more than 80 percent of the home-state freshman class are admitted under the rule, could start cutting back on such automatic admissions by the fall of 2010 if the changes are approved.

In a surprise move, the Senate also tacked on an amendment that would give full scholarships to needy students who meet the top 10 percent threshold. Qualified students not admitted to the public college of their choice could use the scholarship at a Texas university that did let them in.

The reform, which faces several more hurdles in the Legislature before it could become law, would still give automatic admission to top high school achievers. But the reforms would cap the number universities have to admit.

The move to modify the top 10 percent law has failed in past sessions and has been met with skepticism by some minority groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he could not support the reform unless the Senate agreed to let the changes expire after six years, allowing the Legislature to revisit the issue.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, sponsor of the cap legislation, said the law has led to a "brain drain" because talented musicians and would-be scientists can't get in to UT.

UT President William Powers has said the state's flagship university is allowed to use race-based affirmative action and described that as a preferable and more flexible route to diversity. He said the top 10 percent law has provoked an unintended "capacity problem" on campus, and that UT was already planning to eliminate the practice of letting freshmen start in the summer instead of the fall.



The Texas Legislature is considering a measure that would make it easier for schools to offer full-day pre-kindergarten programs to economically disadvantaged 4-year-olds.

Texas currently pays for half-day preschool, widely thought to boost student performance in later years, for qualifying children. But under a bill winding through the Legislature, the state would pay for schools to offer full-day programs.

Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, said her proposal would add about $300 million to the state budget now being crafted.

"But it would save millions of dollars in future costs to the state because these children are more likely to be ready from the start to start learning and less likely to drop out," Patrick said of her bill, which also sets classroom standards for the programs.

Critics say the proposal would cost the state too much and doesn't do enough to encourage partnerships with private groups.

"This is more than doubling the cost," said Brooke Terry, an education policy expert for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "This is basically going to be a tax increase on people during a recession."



Gov. Rick Perry's office on Tuesday defended the size and appropriateness of a $50 million grant from the state's Emerging Technology Fund to the Texas A&M University System that is under scrutiny by legislators.

Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, voiced concern about the grant to help construct and create the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, which will be a partnership between the university system and pharmaceutical companies. After asking questions about the state grant last week, Pitts called officials from the governor's office back before his committee Tuesday.

Pitts and other lawmakers asked about the work that is to be done at the center, which private companies will be involved and why money was transferred from the state's general job creation account known as the Texas Enterprise Fund to the Emerging Tech Fund - an account designed to help innovative businesses take root - when the grant was awarded in January.

Perry's chief financial officer, Rebeca White, said the governor's office has the power by law to shift money among those "trusteed" programs. "We don't use it very often. We use it very judiciously," she said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and then-Speaker Tom Craddick were aware of the movement of the money when they signed on with Perry to award the $50 million grant, White said.



The State Board of Education was set to take a decisive vote on new science curriculum standards.

The proposal up for adoption would drop a 20-year-old requirement that critics say is used to undermine the theory of evolution in favor of religious teachings.

The change would drop the mandate that science teachers address both "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory. New standards would be in place for the next decade.

Observers are closely watching the debate because of the religious implications.

After a public hearing Wednesday, the board is scheduled to take a vote on the measure Thursday.



Several lawmakers, the AARP and other groups said Tuesday they want the state to up the amount it pays to care for Medicaid patients in nursing homes.

Rep. Patrick Rose, a Democrat who chairs the House Human Services Committee, said an estimated $368 million in new revenue is needed for the coming two-year budget for operating and staffing needs at nursing homes that serve Medicaid patients. The homes serve 60,000 Medicaid residents. The state Medicaid reimbursement for those homes is $112 per day.

The nursing home advocates said Texas hasn't funded cost increases for Medicaid nursing home residents since 1999.



The Texas Hospital Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses urged lawmakers Tuesday to take action to address the state's health care coverage problem.

The groups urged support for a number of bills they said would help Texas improve its dismal standing as worst in the nation in uninsured. They also are running ads on cable stations and Web sites.

Dr. Dan Stultz, president and chief executive of the hospital association, said the state has the embarrassing distinction of having 5.7 million of its residents without health insurance, or one in four Texans. He said those who do have coverage are paying a higher premium to cover the costs of delivering care to the uninsured.

"This is a crisis that is hurting every man, woman and child in Texas," Stultz said. "Many people without coverage are going without routine, preventive care."

Small business leaders say it's difficult for them to buy medical coverage for their employees, even though they want to help retain good workers.



The first substantive bill scheduled for debate in the House this session is a proposal to expand the state's financial incentives for film and television productions. The bill is on Wednesday's House agenda, and Libertarian Party of Texas made its opposition known ahead of time by sending out an e-mail against House Bill 873 by Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin.

The Libertarians are also criticizing Republican Gov. Rick Perry for supporting film incentives.

Libertarian Party Chair Pat Dixon said it's not the government's role to pick winner and loser industries to support with taxpayer dollars and that all industries should be treated equally under the law.

Perry wants the Legislature to put $60 million into the Texas Film Incentive Program for the coming two-year state budget. The money would also benefit television production and the video game business. Lawmakers allotted about $20 million for film, television and video industry incentives in 2007.



Ten-year-old Shashwarth Murthy testified in a House committee Tuesday against a proposal that would change the state dinosaur to paluxysaurus (pal-ux-ee-SORE-us).

Murthy asked members of the committee to instead consider Technosaurus smalli, a 4-foot-long herbivore named after Texas Tech University. The Irving fifth-grader first proposed giving technosaurus the honor in 2005. Then in first grade, he sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry after researching the dinosaur for a class project.

Fort Worth Republican Rep. Charlie Geren had proposed changing the official Texas dinosaur after the current honoree was exposed as an impostor.

A 60-foot-long herbivore pleurocoelus (PLOOR-uh-SEEL-us) has held the title since 1997. But in 2007 a Southern Methodist University graduate student discovered fossils found near the Paluxy River weren't pleurocoelus, but actually belonged to a different, more uniquely Texan dinosaur - paluxysaurus.

Though members of the committee applauded the boy for his research and testimony, technosaurus may still be out of the running.

A Fort Worth scientist testified that recent research shows Murthy's pick probably isn't a dinosaur.

But House members were determined to get the reptile on the books.

"We're gonna find a place for the technosaurus, too," Geren said.

The state could get a new category in order to honor technosaurus - state archosaur. Dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds are all archosaurs.



"I still can't pronounce a lot of what went on in here today." - Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, after a hearing on his resolution to change the official state dinosaur from pleurocoelus to paluxysaurus .