Paul Brown

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Chancellor writes Perry about guns on campuses

University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is expressing concern once again over legislation relating to allowing concealed handguns on university campuses.

According to a press released issued by the UT System on Wednesday, the chancellor has sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry on the matter. The letter was also delivered to House Speaker Joe Straus, Chairman Joe Pickett of the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee and Chairman John Whitmire of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“I respect the legislature’s authority to decide this public policy issue, and that neither all legislators nor the Texans they represent will agree,” Cigarroa wrote in his letter to Perry. “However, during my tenure as Chancellor, parents, students, faculty, staff, administrators, and institutional law enforcement officers have all expressed concern that the presence of concealed handguns on our campuses will make the campus environment less safe.”

Cigarroa expressed similar concerns in a letter to the governor in 2011, when the issue was last before legislators.

Senate honors wrongfully convicted Texan

The Texas Senate honored wrongfully convicted Texan Michael Morton Wednesday.

Senate Resolution 477 recognizes Morton’s “courage and grace” during the more than two decades he was inprisoned for the death of his wife, Christine. DNA evidence recently exonerated Morton.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), who chairs the board for the Innocence Project, led the chamber during the recognition.

“Mr. President, members, today I have the honor of introducing an incredible man with a story of courage and perseverance most of us cannot even comprehend,” Ellis said.

He echoed the sentiments of the Dallas Morning News, which selected Morton as one of its 2012 Texans of the Year.

“Members, Mr. Morton could have harbored incredible bitterness and simply tried to rebuild his own life outside of the spotlight, concentrating on himself and his future,” Ellis told senators assembled. “That would be understandable. Instead, he is using the stature he has gained as a living testimony of the flaws of our criminal justice system to enact real change and prevent other Texans from sharing his fate.”

Sen. Ellis and Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) recently filed comprehensive discovery reform legislation which they say would create a fairer, more reliable and transparent Texas’ justice system.

 

 

Bills address veterans’ tuition program concerns

Two bills have been filed to address concerns raised by some Texas universities over the expense of the state’s veteran higher education financial aid program known as Hazlewood.

State Rep. Chris Turner (D-San Antonio) and state Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) filed identical measures which would allow schools to use “B-On-Time” funds that are currently not utilized to offset Hazlewood and Hazlewood Legacy tuition exemptions.

“Hazlewood represents a solemn promise from the state of Texas to our veterans and their families and our legislation is aimed at keeping that promise,” Turner said.  “By allowing our state’s colleges and universities to utilize unused B-On-Time funds that are currently being transferred back to the state to instead offset Hazlewood costs, we will strengthen our veterans benefits and help our colleges and universities.” 

“The first and foremost consideration is that we help the 1 percent who defend our freedoms and have earned their Hazlewood benefits,” Van de Putte said. “It makes sense to give schools the flexibility to utilize monies already appropriated for their campuses before looking at additional state dollars. This bill will help our universities do the right thing for our veterans and their families.”

The two pieces of legislation would allow state institutions to retain unused tuition funds designated for the “B-On-Time” loan program. HB 3265 and SB 1543 would allow leftover funds to stay with the institution at which they were collected, rather than the current practice of sending that money to other schools.

Staples talks border security ahead of book release

WASHINGTON — Border security continues to be a focus for Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples in his run for lieutenant governor. Now, he has taken that message straight to Washington, D.C.

Commissioner Staples spoke Monday to members of the U.S. House of Representatives and their staffs about the H-2B visa, designed to allow businesses to fill labor shortages. Staples wants reforms in the program, which he says is plagued with “bureaucratic red tape and antiquated quotas, and helps create an insecure border.”

He told the group that the guest worker process is to be blamed for the deaths of 591 individuals, from 2006 to 2011, in Texas counties along the border region.

“These individuals had a desire to better themselves, and in response to an under-populated U.S. labor market, literally risked life and limb to enter the United States,” Staples told the group, according to today’s news release from the Texas Department of Agriculture. “Nearly 600 died on their journey to what they hoped would be a better life.”

Commissioner Staples is about to release a book he wrote, “Broken Borders, Broken Promises: How Porous Borders Are Robbing America’s Future.” The commissioner is expected to appear on Capital Tonight later this week to talk more about his book and border security.

Staples is one of several Republican office holders who have indicated they are running for lieutenant governor, or have at least expressed interest. That list includes Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and State Comptroller Susan Combs. Incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has already indicated he plans to run for re-election.

Read Staples’ entire remarks here.

Perry reacts to Planned Parenthood decision

A state district court denied Planned Parenthood’s request to participate in the Texas Women’s Health Program on Friday. Gov. Perry’s office released the following statement:

“This is great news for Texas women and further proves that Planned Parenthood’s case attempting to derail the Texas Women’s Health Program lacks merit and is nothing more than a desperate move by an organization more concerned with obtaining taxpayer money than with helping women get care. With this ruling, our state can continue caring for Texas women.”

Let the debate on our future begin

Covering the opening of any legislative session live on television presents unique challenges, the most obvious of which is the fact that both the House and Senate chambers schedule their starts at the exact same time.

Thus, the 83rd Legislative Session started just like the last one for those of us covering it – having to decide which chamber to show first, hoping there’s at least a little time between the pounding of the two gavels. But that’s where the similarities between the last two sessions ended.

The big difference, of course, is the financial circumstances this time around. More estimated revenue for the upcoming budget cycle provides a new plot line for both parties.

Republicans, as highlighted by Governor Rick Perry’s message to the new members of the Texas Senate on Tuesday, make the case that while the revenue estimates are up, the IOU’s and deferred payments from the previous session are still out there, necessitating continued spending restraint. The governor points to the higher revenue estimate as proof that conservative fiscal policies are making Texas stand economically taller than other states.

Democrats, as indicated by longtime Senator Leticia Van de Putte after her selection as president pro tem of the Senate, make the case that the revenue estimates last session were off enough to prompt unnecessary budget cuts in education and health care services that need to be restored. The minority party believes the cuts did not result in doing more with less, but less with less.

Where both parties perhaps have the biggest consensus is in recognizing that for Texas to continue to grow, the state’s infrastructure in areas like water and transportation, must keep up with the growing demand to live in — and move to — our state. How to achieve that is where the philosophical debate begins perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

Education lobby reacts to budget projections

Mention a budget estimate that’s about 12 percent higher than the last time state lawmakers met, and it’s not hard to get reaction from those lobbying for a cause. And arguably the biggest cause to confront lawmakers this two-year budget cycle is the future of public education funding.

The day before the 83rd Legislative Session convenes Tuesday at noon, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, representing more than 50,000 teachers, believes the funding cuts of the past session should be fixed thanks to the fiscal conditions of an estimated $101.4 billion available this biennium, announced by Comptroller Susan Combs on Monday.

“If the legislature was willing to tap into the Rainy Day Fund in a major way, it could restore the cuts made to public education last time,” Lonnie Hollingsworth Jr., TCTA’s director of legal services and governmental relations, said. “Unfortunately, no one is really talking about that.”

The comptroller indicated there’s currently about $8 billion dollars in the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account. If left untouched, that figure is estimated to climb to about $12 billion by the end of the next budget cycle.

Another issue the TCTA is monitoring is school choice. That includes the proposed idea of lifting the cap on charter schools, and the possibility of someone introducing a voucher plan.

“The problem with charters is they need to be vetted,” Hollingsworth said. “There needs to be someone at the state level to make sure that the entities that are going to be operating those charters are going to do a good job.”

Hollingsworth added that with cuts to the Texas Education Agency itself, that oversight may be impacted.

As for any voucher plan that might be introduced, Hollingsworth said the cost would either come out of the state’s overall budget, or directly out of the budget for Texas public schools.

Newly-appointed Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Dan Patrick indicated late last year that he preferred to hear directly from teachers rather than from teachers groups. Patrick argued the two often contradict each other on this issue. Patrick at the time, also alluded to the idea of a “teacher’s choice” plan that could be unveiled this session, but did not go into details.