Highlights from the Texas Legislature, 2-17-09

AUSTIN, Texas - Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has been sharply critical of federal bailout and economic stimulus plans, said Tuesday that Texas should now be cautious about how it spends billions of dollars that may be available to the Lone Star State.

Perry's remarks to the National Federation of Independent Business came a couple of hours before President Barack Obama signed into law the stimulus bill - a $787 billion mix of tax cuts and one of the biggest public spending programs since World War II.

"As we begin to take a real close look at this package that's coming out of Washington, D.C., my concern is there's going to be commitments attached to it that are a mile long," Perry said. "We need the freedom to pick and choose. And we need the freedom to say 'No thanks.' "

At this point, state officials seem to have more questions than answers.

Perry's office is still trying to figure out if the state will be able to take some money while leaving some of it on the table, how much money could come to Texas and exactly what role Perry will play. Perry huddled with staff and state agency leaders to sort things out.

"We're still looking at everything and what the stimulus means for Texas," Perry spokesman Mark Miner said.

Perry told the business group he wants to be able to use federal money to pay for one-time expenses, such as building roads and hurricane reconstruction. State transportation officials say Texas will get about $2.25 billion for transportation projects.

"We'll gladly accept those dollars," Perry said.

But Perry also said Texas should be wary of spending on other programs just to draw down billions more in federal money that may not be available in two or three years, sticking Texas with the bill. Perry did not say what those programs might be.



The Texas Department of Transportation officials told lawmakers Tuesday that they've been working with cities to pick roads' projects that will get a share of the federal stimulus money for transportation.

Texas is slated to get about $2.25 billion for highway and bridge improvement projects.

Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, said the state agency is working with local metropolitan planning organizations to rate projects based factors such as safety, congestion relief and economic development.

"We have a list of $8 billion worth of projects and we've received funding for $2.25 billion," said Commission chair Deirdre Delisi. "We have to make some choices. We're talking about how we get the most bang for our buck."

Of the stimulus money, $1.5 billion will be spent on projects selected by the commission, Saenz said. About $675 million will be spent at the discretion of city planning boards.

The law requires that half the money be spent on projects that have been vetted by the federal government and deemed "ready to go" in 120 days, as a way to jolt the economy and create jobs. That means state officials are under pressure to make decisions quickly on which projects to fund and which to bypass.



American Indian tribes in Texas are trying again to reopen their casinos with legislation filed Tuesday that would provide a defense to prosecution for tribes that operate limited casino gambling.

Rep. Norma Chavez, an El Paso Democrat, introduced a bill that would allow the Tigua tribe in El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta tribe near Livingston to reopen casinos that were closed by court orders when the state opposed them. The tribes say they need the money generated from gambling for health care, education and other tribal necessities.

"We have seen success," said Carlos Hisa, lieutenant governor for the Tigua tribe, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo of El Paso. He's been at the Capitol for previous legislative sessions to ask that the tribe be allowed to resume its revenue-producing poker and bingo-style gaming. "Hopefully we can get it done this year."

Meanwhile, Carlos Bullock, tribal council chairman for the Alabama-Coushatta, said members of his tribe plan to be in Austin later this week to meet with the Tigua leaders and key legislators. The tribe is looking at all options that would allow its gambling to resume, he said.

The two tribes argue that because Texas created a state-run lottery it opened the door for Indian casino gambling on federally recognized tribal lands.

The Tiguas operated their Speaking Rock Casino from 1993-2001. The tribe has said it produced $60 million annually for the tribe's members. The Alabama-Coushatta ran their East Texas casino for only nine months before it was closed in 2002, generating $1 million per month.



Legislators from two Texas cities with the highest incidence of HIV in the state took steps Tuesday to make HIV screenings a part of routine doctor visits.

Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Rep. Yvonne Davis of Dallas filed Senate Bill 877 and its counterpart in the House requiring doctors to offer HIV screening during regular check-ups. Patients would then have the choice to opt out of the screening.

The legislation would put Texas in line with 2006 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations calling for routine, voluntary HIV screenings for patients as young as 13.

According to the CDC, between 2003 and 2007 more than one-fourth of Texans with HIV were diagnosed late in their progression, and were diagnosed with AIDS within a month. Texas ranks fourth in the nation for reported cases of HIV. Texas Department of State Health Services data for 2007 puts more than half of the state's more than 62,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Houston and Dallas.

"Early diagnosis is a key to fighting the disease and its spread. The sooner a person is made aware of their status, the sooner they can change their behavior," Ellis said.

Supporters also hope the proposed legislation will help remove the stigma around HIV testing. Randall Ellis, introduced by Sen. Rodney Ellis at a press conference as a key member of the team to draft the legislation, leads government relations for Legacy Community Health Services, a medical care group that provides HIV treatment in Houston.

"We're getting more and more people just to get into the habit of testing," he said.



Less than a week after new House Speaker Joe Straus announced legislative committee assignments, one unhappy Democratic lawmaker is threatening retaliation.

During Tuesday's session, Rep. Harold Dutton questioned Straus, R-San Antonio, about resigning his new committee assignments, or swapping with another lawmaker. Straus, who was named speaker last month, said the House rules did not address such maneuvering.

Dutton, D-Houston, was a member of the inner circle under previous Speaker Tom Craddick, but has been on the minority side since Straus became leader of the chamber. Previously a powerful chairman, Dutton is a rank-and-file member of the House Corrections Committee under the new assignments.

Dutton, who has been quietly threatening to instigate daily votes on Straus' leadership, proceeded to ask Straus if rules allowed for such daily referendums.

"So if a motion to vacate the chair failed, a motion to reconsider could be made every day, I suppose?" Dutton asked.

"That's possible, sure," Straus answered.

No such motion was made Tuesday.



Registered lobbyists were hoping they'd get a little more face time this year with Texas legislators. But a top Senate leader isn't playing along.

Two years ago, lobbyists were banned from passing notes into the chamber as a way of calling a particular senator off the floor. This legislative session they wanted the new chair of the Senate Administration Committee, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, to lift the ban.

But Williams said Tuesday there would be no note-passing in the Senate on his watch. He said the lobbyists could stay in, well, the lobby.

"They can get a hold of our staff if they need to get us a message," Williams said. Lobbyists can still pass notes into the state House and, if they've got cell phone numbers, send text messages to state senators.



House lawmakers are moving forward with their efforts to fix the Texas state schools for the mentally disabled after a federal report found negligent and abusive care and conditions that contributed to dozens of deaths.

Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, chairman of the Committee on Human Services, filed a bill that he said would boost oversight of state schools and community group homes, in part by requiring annual inspections and state investigations of reports of abuse and neglect.

Gov. Rick Perry has declared improving care and conditions for the 5,000 residents of Texas' 13 state schools a legislative emergency.



"I might as well quit grousing about it, because it's reality now." - Gov. Rick Perry on the federal economic stimulus bill signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama.