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Legislature finished, may meet again: Budget balanced, but redistricting, Robin Hood unresolved

By BOBBY HORN JR.

AUSTIN— Chicken Ds/ Killer Ds, Robin Hood and budget crisis. While these are the areas which the 78th State Legislature will most be remembered, there were literally hundreds of bills filed this session which will go unnoticed by most residents.

Hanging like a shadow over legislators was the worst budget crisis that the state has faced in a half century, with a $9+ billion budget shortfall that had to be reconciled.

Two of the biggest issues, redistricting and the “Robin Hood” funding of school districts, were not acted on by the time the session closed, and likely the Governor will call a special session later in the year to deal with one or both of these issues.

Our local Representative, Joe Crabb, is chairman of the committee that must deal with redistricting. However, he was not involved in the so-called Chicken D flight of 51 Democratic legislators, who fled to Oklahoma to avoid a vote on the issue, until it was too late.

Proponents of gambling won a major victory in Austin this session with a bill that will allow Texas to enter multi-state lotteries such as Powerball. This action, say backers, will bring in approximately $101 million to the state coffers. The legislature, did, however, give a thumbs-down to letting the Texas Lottery Commissioner operate keno games.

Family-related issues were popular among legislators. Among bills to pass was an abortion waiting period, which requires women seeking abortion to wait 24 hours and to receive printed material about fetal development.

The legislature also issued a legal definition of the term “embryo” and “fetus” as an individual that would allow prosecution of a person who deliberately harms and kills the fetus. This issue had gain nation-wide attention since the death of Laci Peterson and her unborn son in California. There is also an effort in Washington D.C. to pass legislation that would allow prosecution on the federal level and provide consistent enforcement across the country.

Another local legislator, Kevin Bailey, was deeply involved in investigating the Houston Crime Lab, and it’s failure to process DNA and other evidence properly. His bill requires licensing of these labs, which was not currently the practive in Houston.

The legislature also banned state recognition of same sex marriages or civil unions formed in other states. In a compromise with Gay rights advocates, legislators voted down a bill that would have prevented gay couples from serving as foster parents.

Tackling the issue of campaign reform, legislators passed a bill that would stiffen identification requirements for campaign contributors and would require office holders to report not only contributions and expenditures but cash on hand.

One bill, which has been attacked by family rights advocates, is the deregulation of college and universities’ tuition rates. This bill allows schools to set their own rates, which Texas A&M and the University of Texas officials say will likely rise as much as 40 percent. Locally, Lee College raised their rate a modest $4 per credit hour.

While literally hundreds of bills were passed by the joint houses this session, a similar number fell by the wayside. Among these not to pass muster was an initiative to raise cigarette tax as much as a $1 per pack, and a bill that would have banned drivers from using cell phones while operating a vehicle unless using a hands-free device.

Criminal Justice-related bills took a hit from legislators this session with three main bills failing, the first would have allowed juries the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison without parole for capital offenses. Currently, the choices given to juries are the death penalty or life with the possibility of parole.

Two other bills directly related to the death penalty were also defeated. The first would have placed a ban on sentencing someone to death if they committed the crime before they were 18 years old. The second would have created a pre-trial hearing to determine if a capital murder defendant is mentally retarded. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the mentally retarded cannot be executed.