Thursday Highlights from the Texas Legislature

AUSTIN, Texas - Texas should require businesses like gas stations and nursing homes to have backup power generators to avoid massive disruptions like those caused by Hurricane Ike, according to a legislative panel's recommendations released Wednesday.

The House Select Committee on Hurricane Ike also recommended stronger building codes, expanding the sales tax holiday to include emergency survival items and putting $250 million in the state's Disaster Contingency Fund. Many of the recommendations are expected to be taken up by the Legislature this spring.

"The state must be more involved in emergency preparation and the recovery process," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, chairman of the committee. "We need to be proactive when the next hurricane strikes and we can't wait for the federal government to take care of our citizens after a disaster."

Ike slammed the Gulf Coast near Galveston on Sept. 13, killing dozens and causing widespread damage.

To minimize the potential for power loss in future storms, the panel recommended phasing out wooden electrical poles, encouraging more underground power lines and requiring utility companies to submit plans to improve their systems. The panel also suggested legislation to require back-up generators at water plants, gas stations and certain health care facilities in storm-prone areas.

To help people better prepare for catastrophic storms, the committee recommended expanding the annual sales-tax holiday to exempt generators, batteries, ice chests and other survival gear from taxes. The panel found shortcomings in the availability of emergency housing after the hurricane and suggested creating a new Division of Emergency Housing to facilitate housing recovery efforts.



Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, filed a bill Wednesday that would ban human cloning. The proposal states that it would be against the law to place in a woman's womb a human embryo created by a method other than fertilization.

The bill would make human cloning a first-degree felony.



Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson told legislators Wednesday the state should change its system of electing judges to reduce the influence of money and straight-ticket voting on judicial races.

Jefferson in his biennial "State of the Judiciary" speech said he supports a system that some other states have in which judges are appointed based on merit then held accountable with elections to decide whether they remain in office.

Even the perception that campaign contributions influence court cases destroys public confidence, he said.

Later in the day, Republican Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock announced he filed legislation that would set up a judicial appointment system like the one Jefferson supports. His proposal would grandfather all current appellate justices into the new system and make them subject to a retention election when their current terms expire.

Consumer and government watchdog groups called Wednesday for such a change in the Texas judiciary before Jefferson's speech. One of those organizations, Texans for Public Justice, praised Jefferson's remarks.

"Chief Justice Jefferson's acknowledgment that the Texas judicial election system is 'broken' is the first step in restoring faith in Texas courts," said Craig McDonald, director of TPJ. He urged the governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature to act swiftly on Jefferson's suggestion.



"We have people still today who do not have a place to live, and this is unacceptable in the state of Texas. ... At the very least we must provide shelter for our citizens." - Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, as his House panel on the effects of Hurricane Ike released its recommendations.