Highlights from the Texas Legislature

AUSTIN, Texas - Democratic lawmakers asked Republican Gov. Rick Perry to accept unemployment money in the federal stimulus package, even though it would mean expanding the program, which he opposes.

Texas stands to receive $555 million in federal stimulus money for unemployment benefits if lawmakers make the changes the federal government requires to allow more people to qualify.

"Think of (the stimulus money) as a bridge to help Texans get over the troubled waters of this economy," said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, a possible Democratic contender for governor in 2010.

Perry's office said he hasn't decided whether to accept the funds, a spokeswoman said. He has said repeatedly that he's opposed to using federal rescue money to expand government programs, which the state would eventually have to handle on its own.

"It's unfortunate that today some legislators decided to inject politics into the stimulus discussion," Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said. She said Perry's office is continuing to review the federal stimulus legislation to determine what strings are attached and what the long-term financial impact could be to Texas taxpayers.

The Texas unemployment rate jumped to 6.0 percent in December and the state lost jobs in three of the last four months of 2008, the Texas Workforce Commission said in January. The unemployment compensation trust fund could be operating at a deficit by October, with insolvency not far behind, Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken told lawmakers last week.

To receive the full amount of stimulus money available, lawmakers would need to adjust the time period used to determine whether people are eligible for benefits. Texas also is being asked to expand eligibility to include thousands of low-wage workers.



Citizens groups demanded Tuesday that the Texas Department of Transportation slow down in selecting road construction projects for federal stimulus money.

The groups said they don't want stimulus money spent on toll roads or highways that tear up environmentally sensitive lands. They held a Capitol rally then fanned out to visit lawmakers to urge that the transportation agency take more time and get citizen input in deciding how to spend much of the $2.25 billion in stimulus highway money Texas is getting.

State transportation officials are set to decide on $1.2 billion in stimulus road projects Thursday. Some lawmakers have said the agency has been moving too fast. The citizen activists say the department is out of control and has "hijacked" the federal money.



Nurses testified for and against a proposed bill intended to bridge staffing gaps by making it easier for nurses to report problems.

The legislation would ban mandatory overtime for nurses in addition to laying out methods for nurses to report staffing problems and recommendations. The bill expands protections for nurses who report problems or refuse to work overtime.

Nurses and organizations in support of the bill, including the Texas Nurses Association and Texas Hospital Association, said the legislation will empower nurses and increase the weight of their reports.

Opponents said the language of the bill is not strong enough and doesn't require enough of what hospitals must do with the nurses' staffing recommendations. The National Nurses Organizing Committee, a California-based organizing group, and some individual nurses were the primary opponents.

Nurses and doctors descended on the Capitol Tuesday to testify on a wide range of health-related legislation.



They fight ferociously on the football field, but the Texas Longhorns and the Texas Aggies called a truce for a day to call attention to promote higher education. In other words, it's Orange and Maroon Legislative Day at the Texas Capitol, where college tuition rates, admissions policies and univerity research funding are hot issues this year.

Officials from both schools, which have a combined annual enrollment of more than 95,000 students, were on hand to talk up their pet causes.



An unscheduled bill allowing churches to bury clergy members beneath their floors was brought up and passed by the Senate Health and Human Services Commission Tuesday.

Current health code requires new cemeteries be built outside city limits, up to five miles away in the larger cities.

The code essentially prevents newer Catholic churches from following the tradition of burying clergy in on-site mausoleums, said Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, one of nine listed sponsors of the legislation.

The proposed legislation would apply to federally recognized religions with an established tradition of burials at places of worship.



Legislation to protect needle-exchange programs operated by local health departments won approval in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday after brief testimony in favor of the bill.

The proposal would prevent district attorneys from prosecuting state-sanctioned health programs that allow intravenous drug users to trade out dirty syringes for clean ones. The committee voted 5-1 to send the bill on to the full Senate.

Republican Sen. Robert Deuell, a Greenville physician, introduced the bill this year and in 2007 when it was left pending in the House health committee after passing the Senate.

A pilot needle-sharing program for Bexar County was tacked on to Medicaid legislation in 2007, but the state attorney general ruled that the language left exchange operators open to prosecution for possession of drug paraphernalia.

Supporters said Tuesday the proposed legislation would slow the spread of HIV and hepatitis among drug users and the spread to families of drug users, children who find dirty needles and police officers who are stuck by dirty needles.

Past opponents have argued that syringe exchange programs don't change addict behavior and could encourage drug use.

Texas is the only state that doesn't allow syringe exchange programs of any kind.



"We will be neutering some of these legislators if they try to get in our way. We want real reform." - Linda Curtis, director of Independent Texans, warning that the Texas transportation agency should be reined in and that legislators should not "neuter" reform legislation.