AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas House unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would regulate the already-limited ability of governments to seize property using the power of eminent domain.
The proposed law specifies private property could only be seized by governments under "eminent domain" if needed for public use, such as highways or schools. It also dictates what evidence must be considered by special commissioners in making decisions on reimbursements and the rights of property owners to repurchase taken property.
The government would be required to make a "bona fide" offer to buy the property from landowners and pay for relocation expenses. It also puts into state law a prohibition on property seizure for private use, which already was prohibited by a constitutional amendment passed in 2009.
Lawmakers have been tinkering with the state's eminent domain law for years, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision sparked concern about governments abusing their constitutional power to seize private land.
Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has designated the eminent domain bill a legislative emergency.
"Property ownership is an essential freedom for Texans and an important part of fulfilling the American dream," Perry said. "I ... commend the Texas House for passing SB 18, which will help further protect property owners by strengthening our eminent domain laws. I look forward to seeing this important legislation reach my desk."
He vetoed a similar bill in 2007, arguing that the language in the legislation would lead to higher costs for taxpayers from more litigation. The move angered farmers and private property rights advocates.
Perry has supported other eminent domain restrictions, including the 2009 constitutional amendment that banned seizure for private use.
This year's legislation was supported by the Texas Farm Bureau, pipeline companies and utility companies.
FEDERAL BALANCED BUDGET
The Texas House has adopted a resolution urging Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.
Facing a $15 billion budget shortfall in their own state, the House approved the measure Wednesday by a 115-17 vote. Several Democrats voted for the GOP-sponsored measure. Several other Democrats were present but chose not to vote.
If Congress doesn't do that by the end of the year, the resolution requests other states join Texas in calling a constitutional convention. Two-thirds of all the states would have to agree to hold such a convention, which has never been done.
Gov. Rick Perry had designated the resolution an emergency item for the Legislature.
FEWER REPUBLICANS NEXT SESSION?
Republicans are bracing for losses under a new Texas House redistricting proposal.
Rep. Burt Solomons, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, revealed details of his plan Wednesday. With skyrocketing growth in minority populations, Republicans are bracing for the loss of several incumbents in 2012 after seeing their biggest majority ever this year. GOP incumbents would have to run against each other in seven districts under his plan. Democrats face only one such "pairing" of incumbents.
There would be eight open seats in the Solomons proposal. The GOP has a 101-49 edge in the state House. Many Republicans are predicting the supermajority will shrink after the 2012 elections under a newly drawn map.
A low-level radioactive waste dump in remote West Texas could take in waste from dozens of states, under a bill approved Wednesday by the Texas senate.
The waste dump in Andrews County could be ready to accept the waste by next fall, according to a spokesman for Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, which operates the site.
Environmentalists have resisted the move, warning that it would result in radioactive material rumbling through the state on trucks with few safeguards in case of an accident.
The Senate bill allows Waste Control Specialists to set disposal fees for 36 states that are not part of the original compact between Texas and Vermont. Previously, environmental regulators were to determine the rates.
Texas and the city and county governments in Andrews will get a share of those fees, said Waste Control Specialists spokesman Chuck McDonald.
"They are anxious to get started," McDonald said. "This paves the way for that to happen."
The bill by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, still needs House approval, which could come next week.
The Senate bill requires that waste from the non-compact states take up no more than 30 percent of capacity at the facility. It also bans waste from foreign countries.
Other states can pay $30 million to join the compact through 2018 before the price goes to $50 million. Generators from non-party states would pay a surcharge for their imported waste
More than 1,000 members of the Texas Library Association wearing red t-shirts rallied in front of the Capitol to a thumping drumbeat on Wednesday.
The librarians and other library workers protested cuts to libraries, schools and the State Archives.
TEXAS YOUTH COMMISSION CHANGES
The two state agencies that handle juvenile criminal offenders would be abolished and replaced with a single agency under legislation approved by the Texas Senate Wednesday.
The bill by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, combines the Texas Youth Commission and the Juvenile Probation Commission into the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Whitmire has long been a leader of justice system reforms and said the new agency will work within local communities and emphasize probation for youth. Keeping juvenile offenders in the community to work with counselors and probation officers instead of sending them to state incarceration facilities is an aspect Whitmire has said is crucial.
The bill would allow the state to close down any of the 10 Texas Youth Commission state facilities that won't be needed and allow the counties with less than 100,000 people where the facilities are located to use the closed facilities for other purposes.
The new agency will be overseen by a governor-appointed board composed of judges, probation officers and other professionals.
The bill comes out of recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Committee, made up of mostly lawmakers, which determined that consolidating the juvenile justice agencies was the best way to iron out persistent problems in the system.
The Texas Senate has voted to expand the number of charter schools in the state.
The Senate approved a bill Wednesday that allows the state to authorize 10 new open-enrollment charter schools per year. It also allows existing charter schools to add new campuses without requesting approval.
There would be no limit to the number of charter schools for children with disabilities.
Current law limits the number of charter schools to 215.
Charter schools were approved in 1995. They are allowed to operate with fewer legal restrictions than regular public schools to allow for innovation.
The bill by Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, now goes to the House.
GUNS ON CAMPUS
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte cancelled a visit with First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden on Wednesday when state Sen. Jeff Wentworth stood ready to bring up the guns on campus bill.
Wentworth is short one vote to bring his bill up for debate. If a senator leaves, though, he would have enough votes under the rule that requires a two-thirds vote only of those present to bring an item before the Senate. He has said he will bring up the bill at the first opportunity.
The guns on campus bill would require public universities and colleges to allow concealed hand gun permit-holders to take guns into public buildings.
Van de Putte said she would skip the meeting in San Antonio to keep the measure from coming up for debate.
"I cannot in good conscience leave knowing that legislation such as guns on campus would pass without my opposition," Van de Putte said in a statement. "I continue to salute the sacrifices our military families routinely make as they defend our country's freedoms."
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, had also intended to leave the Senate floor, but chose to remain to prevent a vote on the measure.
GUNS ON LAWMAKERS
Legislators, statewide elected officials and some other state and federal employees who are concealed handgun license holders would be allowed to carry their weapons where the general public is not — bars, churches, sporting events and business — under a bill approved by a Senate committee.
Supporters say lawmakers, judges and prosecutors are potential targets for assassins and should be able to carry protection at all times.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican. Patrick says he is licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
The bill passed the Criminal Justice Committee 6-1 and now heads to the full Senate.
A bill that would make it a felony to touch someone in an intimate place during a routine search has moved to the full House for debate.
The proposed law is aimed as people conducting security checkpoints at airports and public buildings. The bill makes it a crime to intentionally touch someone's groin or breasts, even through clothing, unless the security officer has probably cause to believe that person is carrying something illegal.
House Bill 1937 was authored by state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, and is co-sponsored by 54 other state representatives, could place federal workers at jeopardy of prosecution for conducting so-called enhanced pat-downs. The measure now goes before the entire House for debate.
The Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee has approved tougher laws on cactus rustling.
The measure by state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, would require commercial growers of certain desert plants to register with the Texas Department of Agriculture and provide documents for their plants. Anyone caught selling or transporting a desert plant without proper paperwork would have their plants seized and face a fine of up to $1,000.
The United States is one of the world's largest producers of decorative desert plants. Cactus rustlers steal thousands of plants a year from both public and private lands. On Tuesday the committee sent the bill to the full Senate for a vote.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"This waste is going to be around tens of thousands of years. ...What's the rush?" Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Texas Public Citizen, arguing for further studies before allowing more radioactive waste in Texas.