Highlights from the Texas Legislature

Associated Press

The Texas Senate voted Monday to limit tuition and fee increases to no more than 5 percent a year for most large universities.

The legislation would also permit schools - but not require them - to establish a separate program allowing incoming college freshmen to lock in tuition rates and pay the same amount for four years.

The proposed relief package comes six years after Texas lawmakers allowed universities to raise tuition to make up for declining state appropriations. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, annual tuition and fees rose 86 percent from 2003 to 2009.

But the reforms passed Monday wouldn't simply give that rate-setting power back to the Legislature. Instead, the Senate passed a complicated package of mandates and incentives designed to slowly lower tuition costs.

It would also re-establish a more direct tie between the amount lawmakers appropriate and the tuition and fees parents and students are asked to pay. Schools would have much more flexibility to raise rates, for example, when the Legislature doesn't meet their funding needs.

The bill by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, is a big change from the tuition moratorium and hard caps some proposed at the beginning of the session.



Thousands of small Texas companies would get a two-year break from the state business tax under a measure preliminarily adopted in the House Monday.

The tax, which businesses are currently paying for just the second time, was designed to fix the state's franchise tax and school funding system. But small businesses have complained that the tax is hitting them especially hard.

After a chorus of complaints from the business community, the plan by Rep. Rene Oliveira would temporarily increase the exemption to include businesses making $1 million or less. The exemption currently stands at $300,000.

But, increasing the exemption would cost the state more than $172 million in lost revenue at a time when state revenue is already plummeting.



Texas lawmakers want to expand the ban on cockfighting in Texas.

A measure preliminarily approved in the House Monday would make it illegal to attend cockfights or make money from them.

The proposal by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, also would prohibit owning or selling training equipment.

The House voted 103-33 in favor of the measure.

Christian said cockfights, which have long been illegal in Texas, are often accompanied by illegal alcohol and gambling.



The Texas House has moved to add Texas to the list of states in support of the 24th Amendment - 45 years after the ban on poll taxes in elections was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1964.

The House unanimously approved a resolution Monday to post-ratify the amendment.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's here today," said Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston.

To become part of the U.S. Constitution, three-fourths of the states must vote to ratify an amendment. Twelve states did not ratify the measure after Congress adopted it in 1962. Allen said Texas is one of nine that are not on the record in support of the amendment.

The resolution next goes to the Senate. Two years ago a similar proposal passed unanimously out of the House but failed to make it to the whole Senate.



The Texas House has given final approval to a measure that would allow schools to use their textbook allotment from the state to buy approved electronic materials.

That means qualified information could be downloaded to laptops or Kindle electronic readers if schools choose to use the technology.

Branch and other supporters contend that using computers and online material would save the state money because it eliminates the need to regularly replace cumbersome textbooks that have become outdated. With online textbooks, publishers could update their material and correct errors sooner.

Schools would still have the option of buying hardbacks.



The Senate voted to expand the rights of property owners who face having their land taken by the government.

The bill by Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican, would limit eminent domain land takings to projects for public use only and would require governments to make a "bona fide" offer for the property before condemnation.

A property owner would be entitled to be paid for any loss of market value if the taking impairs their access to the land they still have. Any land taking would also have to be done by a record vote in a public meeting.

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed in 2007 an eminent domain bill that addressed diminished access. Perry, a Republican, is now pushing a constitutional amendment to safeguard landowners' rights.

The Senate bill requires property owners be given an initial offer for the land in writing, and prohibits governments from requiring confidentiality agreements. And if a court rules the government did not make a bona fide offer, it could order the government to make another offer and to pay the landowners' legal fees.

Governments would also have to tell the landowner that he or she and their heirs may someday be able to repurchase the land for the price paid to acquire it. That option would kick in if the public project for the land is canceled or no progress has been made in 10 years after the condemnation.



The Texas House on Monday tentatively approved giving up to $100 million in tax credits to three first-come companies that develop and implement clean energy technology in coal-fired power plants.

Supporters said it was an earned incentive that would likely not affect the state's revenue or budget for 5 to 10 years, because the three projects approved for the incentives would have to build the clean coal plants and prove carbon capture and energy production. But Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said the incentives were money that could be going to consumer relief on property tax and college tuition in a rough economy.

Weatherford Republican Rep. Phil King, one of several representatives backing the measure, said the exemption from the state's franchise tax would be a drop in the bucket compared to the funds it would take to get the plants up and running and the money the companies would generate in the future.

"I truly don't believe we're going to get clean coal technology built in Texas without this," King said of the incentives.

In order for a clean energy project to receive the tax credit, it would have to meet standards including a 200 megawatt production rate while capturing 70 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions.

Monday's passage of the measure rounded out two separate days of lengthy and heated debate on the house floor about what kinds of clean energy projects would be eligible, where the incentive money should come from and how much should be used for the incentives.



The House voted 142-0 Monday to require the governor to report his use of the Emerging Technology Fund to the Legislature at the beginning of each year.

Earlier this session, lawmakers complained that there was no accountability over the fund after Texas A&M University System received a $50 million grant from the fund. The fund is divvied up at the discretion of the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.

The bill by Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, would require Gov. Rick Perry's office to post non-confidential activities of the Emerging Technology Fund on his Web site, as well as submit a report to lawmakers. The information would include the total number and amounts of state grants under the fund and who received them.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

The governor's office uses the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund to bring jobs to Texas.



The Texas House on Monday unanimously gave its final approval to maintain the Texas Youth Commission as a separate entity until at least 2021, contradicting a Senate proposal to roll the state's juvenile prison system in with the juvenile probation system.

The House measure would create an oversight council to develop a long-term improvement plan for the juvenile justice system.

In January, the Sunset Advisory Commission recommended that TYC and the state's juvenile probation system be abolished and their duties rolled into a new Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

TYC is in the process of enacting reforms created by the 2007 Legislature after alleged sexual abuse of inmates by TYC staff. The bill also requires the sunset commission to conduct a very focused review on the reforms and report back to lawmakers in 2011.

The House version of the sunset bill now heads to the Senate. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-Mission, has proposed a bill that would combine the two agencies in line with the sunset recommendations.



Gov. Rick Perry and all Texas governors who follow him would get a flag to fly at official functions under a bill given final approval by the Texas House Monday.

The flag would be a dark blue field with four white stars in the corner and a lone star in the center encircled by live oak and olive branches and the words "In God We Trust."

Rep Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, had originally proposed that the governor take on the 1893 pilot flag of the Republic of Texas. But Weatherford Republican Rep. Phil King suggested that his comrade's choice - consisting of horizontal white, blue and red bands with a lone white star in the center - was too similar to the Russian flag, which lacks only the lone star.

The House voted 127-14 in favor of King's flag, which now heads for the Senate to weigh in on the flag's final appearance. Current state law allows for the governor to have a flag, but no governor has made an official choice.



"I've got to lay out this dyslexia bill now, and I want you to know I know it backward and forward." Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, before laying out a bill on treatment of dyslexia.