AUSTIN - The Texas House of Representatives spent Friday and Saturday, April 17-18, amending and finally passing SB 1, the upper chamber's proposal for the 2010-2011 state budget.
The House version of SB 1 totals $178 billion while the Senate version totals $182.2 billion. The House version represents a 2.5 precent annual increase for the two years, a rate below projected rates of inflation and population growth for Texas.
Now, SB 1 goes back to the Senate, where the body either can accept or reject changes made by the House. If any of the House version's more than 400 amendments rubs senators the wrong way, the bill will go to a conference committee of senators and House members. Differences must be reconciled before the bill can be forwarded to the governor.
The tax-writing House Committee on Ways and Means is working on legislation to fund the appropriations.
Committee eyes smoking ban
Two dozen other states have outlawed smoking in public venues. Texas would join them if SB 544, considered April 14 by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, passes.
The bill, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, would extend the ban to all cities in the state. Already, 28 cities in Texas have ordinances against smoking in public places.
In laying out his bill for consideration, Ellis said there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke, and second-hand smoke presents a public health risk.
"Our state and our state's employers need to embrace policies and programs that will truly clear the air, improve health for every Texan, and make a positive contribution to managing rising health care costs in Texas," he said.
Tobacco purchase age may rise
The Texas Senate on April 15 approved a bill by Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, raising the minimum legal age to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 19 years of age.
Senate bill analysts say Uresti's SB 1049 may cost the state about $12 million in tax revenue from tobacco sales. But Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, pointed out, "You are going to save the state multiple times this amount of money in tobacco related illnesses that we would see on down the line."
State grants to stem tobacco use
Grants available from the Texas comptroller's office are intended to help keep tobacco away from underage users.
Grants ranging from $1,000 to $150,000 can be used for tobacco education, keeping schools and school events tobacco free and sting operations to catch retailers selling tobacco products to minors.
Texas teen-agers illegally buy or smoke more than 67 million packs of cigarettes each year, and combating the threat to children's health is critical, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said.
The deadline to apply for 2009-10 grants is May 4 for schools with on-campus law enforcement and May 11 for police departments, sheriffs, constables and district attorneys.
Senate passes mesothelioma bill
Following a four-hour floor debate, the Senate on April 16 tentatively approved CSSB 1123 by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.
The bill would expedite the process of lawsuits filed by patients with mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer related to exposure to asbestos.
Duncan said a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling made it too difficult for mesothelioma patients to prove the source of their cancer.
Duncan's bill is subject to a vote by the full Senate before it can move to the House for consideration.
Cuba policy changes are asked
The White House on April 14 announced the relaxing of restrictions on travel to Cuba and on sending money to the Caribbean island nation that has been under communist rule since 1959.
Upon that news, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples wrote a letter to President Obama asking for two more changes:
1. The easing of travel restrictions for Cubans seeking trade opportunities with the U.S. and those traveling for educational purposes; and
2. The authorization of a Texas-based air service that will offer direct flights to Cuba.
"While I disagree with Cuba's political philosophy, Staples said, "I believe by expanding trade, Cubans can see the success of democracy and embrace a free market society, and at the same time, Texans will benefit through job growth."