Highlights from the Texas Capitol Monday
AUSTIN, TX In a legislative session dominated by searing debates over a strained state budget, a provision banning smoking in most bars and restaurants has been tucked neatly into a critical spending bill. Previous sessions have seen proposed bans beaten down by arguments favoring the rights of business owners and smokers to not have the government meddling in their private affairs. Now supporters of the ban are counting on a promise that cutting down on smoking will save the state tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars spent treating patients with smoking-related diseases, to turn in their favor. "The worst health hazard in America today is tobacco use," Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a fitness expert and aerobic exercise pioneer, said Monday. "It embarrasses me that we have not been able to pass this bill." According to a legislative analysis, at least 29 states have adopted smoke-free laws and several more are considering them this year. More than 30 Texas cities have comprehensive smoke-free ordinances covering public workplaces and facilities with a patchwork of other regulations across the state. Supporters have been tried in the past to draft celebrities such as former professional cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong to boost their cause. But arguments that second-hand smoke kills more than 50,000 people nationwide every year were overrun by concerns over personal and property rights in the Republican-controlled Legislature. --- BUDGET AGREEMENT House and Senate negotiators have moved closer to finishing up their work on the next two-year state budget. The panel met Monday and wrapped up unfinished business on public schools, higher education and some general government issues. They'll take a final vote when the massive document is printed, expected to be Thursday. Leaders said last week that they had agreed on budgeting $80.6 billion in state dollars for the 2012-2013 spending plan. Final details were not yet available, but public schools will get about $37 billion in state money for general operations. While more than expected, it still means a significant cut to public schools. Once the panel takes a final vote, the budget goes back to both chambers for final adoption. --- STEROID TESTING Texas is likely to keep testing high school athletes for steroids despite deep budget cuts across the state, but it will likely focus the testing on only a few sports -- including football, baseball and track, state legislators said Monday. The state will spend about $1.5 million over the next two years, far below the original $6 million budget when it was created in 2008. The final cost will be determined this week when lawmakers vote on the 2012-13 state budget. Criticism has been mounting since the program began. More than 50,000 tests yielded fewer than 30 confirmed findings of steroid use. Rep. Dan Flynn, a Van Republican who helped create the program, said steroid testing was difficult to defend at a time when budget cuts in public education threaten the jobs of tens of thousands of teachers and school workers across Texas. But Flynn said Monday he believes steroid testing still works as a deterrent. Flynn and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said the program has a valuable ally in Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who first championed it during his 2006 election campaign and wants to keep it alive. --- DRIVING FASTER Texas drivers may soon be going faster. The state Senate has approved raising highway speed limits to 75 miles per hour in some areas and doing away with slower nighttime limits. Most non-urban state highways in Texas have limits of 70 miles per and can be as low as 55 at night. Texas in one of the few states with different limits for urban and rural areas and the only state with lower nighttime speeds. The bill approved Monday allows the state to do safety studies to determine if boosting speeds will be reasonable in some areas. The bill also allows trucks to travel at the same speed as cars. The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Perry for his consideration. --- FOOTBALL HELMETS Public school districts wouldn't be allowed to use older football helmets under legislation passed by the Texas Legislature. The Texas Senate gave final approval Monday to a bill that bans schools from using helmets 16 years old or older. It also requires 10-year-old helmets to be reconditioned every two years. Lawmakers have been paying increasing attention to head injuries sustained by student athletes in recent years. Supporters want to ensure that helmets are in adequate condition as they are the first line of defense against concussions and other head injuries. Districts would have to document when a helmet was purchased and anytime it is reconditioned. The bill has been approved in the Texas House and is headed to Gov. Rick Perry, who can sign it into law. --- ANTI-BULLYING Texas lawmakers have given final approval to legislation requiring schools to adopt anti-bullying policies and improve methods of prevention. The Texas Senate voted Monday to send a bill to Gov. Rick Perry that provides a framework for districts to develop and implement policies that prohibit bullying in any form. Perry can sign the bill into law. The bill gives school boards discretion to transfer a student who bullies another student to a different classroom or campus in the district. Schools would also have to set out specific methods for reporting and investigating bullying incidents. Lawmakers have been working to create a zero-tolerance for bullying, since some students have committed suicide as a result of being bullied. More than 10 different versions of anti-bullying legislation were filed this session. --- WESTERN SWING MUSIC Texas lawmakers have declared western swing the state's official music with a mini-hoedown on the House floor. Rep. Doug Miller donned a cowboy hat and crooned, "I saw miles and miles of Texas," while Reps. Sid Miller and Charles "Doc" Anderson, stomped their feet to the beat. The ceremonial resolution passed unanimously Monday and had already passed the Senate. It means lawmakers gave the nod to such western swing pioneers as Bob Willis over a parade of other homegrown hit-makers, including everyone from Hank Williams to the Dixie Chicks. A sub-genre of country that originated in the 1920s and 30s, western swing is an up-tempo dance sound that mixes pop and jazz with a string section, and can feature elements of fiddle and ragtime. --- PAYDAY LOANS Legislation requiring payday loan providers to post interest rates, fees and terms of service took another step forward in the Texas Legislature. State senators voted approval Monday for the measure, which now returns to the House. The bill would require loan companies to display the disclosures prominently and advise the public that a payday loan is only meant to meet short-term needs, not long-term financial problems. Companies would also have to post contact information for the state consumer credit commissioner. Supporters of the bill say it's important to provide the public with better information and give more oversight to the industry. But some lawmakers want to see more regulation in order to protect Texans from getting trapped in payday loans. --- CAMPAGIN ETHICS A bill to clean up campaign financial disclosure laws and keep Texas lawmakers from double-dipping spending practices stepped closer to becoming law. The Senate approved Monday legislation to require lawmakers to disclose more information about their campaign finances, including the sale of an asset or investment purchased with a political contribution. Lawmakers would also have to report potential conflicts of interests with lobbyists. The bill now goes to the House for final approval before being sent to Gov. Rick Perry. Current law provides little oversight for political travel funding, allowing lawmakers to pocket taxpayer money with few or no records. Double-dipping practices have led to criminal investigation. The bill changes the threshold from $50 to $100 in political expenditures that a lawmaker must report. --- QUOTE OF THE DAY: "This system... is broken when the voices of special interests have the power that they have in the halls of this Capitol. People are being terribly hurt by it, and we shouldn't stand for it." Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaking on the need to reform the payday lending industry.