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Travis delegation outlines plans for upcoming Legislative session

Monday, January 12, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Travis County delegation will go into the upcoming session with a high level of optimism about what they might be able to accomplish over the next six months, a sharp contrast to the last three sessions. The session opens on Tuesday.

Travis County’s delegation to the House of Representatives is entirely Democratic, so it is no surprise that local lawmakers have been all but ignored in a House controlled by outgoing Speaker of the House Tom Craddick and the hard right. Reps. Mark Strama, Eddie Rodriguez and Donna Howard, all Democrats, are all new enough to have never served under a Democrat, or even in a bipartisan House.

Long-term Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin), who knows what it’s like to be able to pass bills under a Democratic Speaker, can’t be blamed for being all but giddy at last Friday’s meeting of the Community Action Network. CAN wanted to hear what kind of health and human service bills local lawmakers might champion. Of course, Naishtat had a long list of bills – new and recycled– that he expects to get a fair hearing during the session.

Before any bills are heard, lawmakers have to be assigned committees by Speaker-apparent Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), who is known among his colleagues as an even-handed moderate. Already, the speculation is that Strama may play a more prominent role in Environmental Regulations. Howard has been a faithful follower of the House Public Education Committee, which has been almost a revolving door for pro-voucher supporters who have failed to keep their seats.

Here is a short list of local lawmakers and their goals for the session, with a caveat that the speakers were addressing a group concerned primarily with health and human service needs in the upcoming session:

Strama talked about a new hope and optimism in the House. Entering his third term, Strama talked about his continued interest in energy-efficiency legislation. He cautioned the group about Straus’ position as a fiscal conservative, but he noted that with a 76-74 split in the House, it was more likely that Democrats would get a hearing. It is Straus’ wish, Strama said, to see the will of the House govern bills as they work their way through the process instead of relying on Craddick’s legendary strong-arm tactics to pass important votes.

Strama spoke about his concentration on energy and education issues, as well as his intention to file a bill to waive the state’s sovereign immunity in cases that charge failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Local and federal governments both are obligated to follow the federal guidelines; the state should follow, Strama said.

Rodriguez intends to renew the call for the needle exchange program – which was struck down, in part, by an Attorney General’s opinion – and consider a balanced billing measure that would end some of the mystery in unanticipated charges for patients.

Howard, entering her second session, talked about the process of the House changing to one where lawmakers seek to find common ground. “You may not get your bills passed, but you won’t get your bills killed,” Howard said.

Bills that Howard intends to file, so far, include ways to address the nursing shortage. Howard also talked about the delegation’s intention to address the costs of Hurricane Ike, including the windstorm insurance issue. She also pointed out the delegation’s need to represent the interests of state employees.  Howard also is working a bill on electronic health care records with former Rep. Ann Kitchens.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes, a Craddick Democrat, offered measured support for Straus. She talked about fixing the problems with the TIERS – the state’s integrated computerized eligibility system – and talked about restoring health services and enrollment to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Rep. Valinda Bolton was not present. Naishtat rounded out the group’s wishes, talking about a Speaker who would provide the opportunity for debate on the issues.

Naishtat spoke hopefully on a number of issues: working to restore children cut from CHIP; maximizing the dollars under Medicaid reform; and addressing the TIERS improvements and terms of the Frew settlement, which relates to Medicaid payments for indigent children. He also spoke to the benefits of the three-share program to insure small business and improving the appeals process for denials for those who are rejected for federal aid.

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