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Travis Commissioners to discuss funding DA’s Public Integrity Unit

Tuesday, August 6, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Judge Sam Biscoe put the future of the state’s Public Integrity Unit firmly in the hands of the Travis County Commissioners Court last week. In the wake of Gov. Rick Perry’s line-item veto of a $3.5 million appropriation for the program, Biscoe set the stage for what will likely be a well-watched Commissioners Court hearing today.


“Now it becomes clearly a county matter,” Biscoe said. “The question is: ‘What do we do?’ From a Commissioners Court perspective, it’s budgetary. As a result of no action being taken, it’s left to us to decide what we think the future of the Public Integrity Unit should be.”


The Public Integrity Unit is based in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office but is funded by the Legislature. Perry said he vetoed the agency’s funding after DA Rosemary Lehmberg refused to resign after a DWI conviction. The unit’s more than 30 employees received layoff notices as a result. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) filed a last-ditch House resolution to fund the unit but that has, so far, received no traction.


That news came as Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator Deece Eckstein reported that the continuing legislative session has been “really long so far” for the county’s lobbying team. In a briefing delivered to the Court last Tuesday, Eckstein reviewed what has been a busy session.


“This is the 30th week in a row the county has had a legislative item on the agenda,” Eckstein told the court. “We’ve been coming and reporting to you since the session began on Jan.  8.” Gridlock regarding transportation funding prompted Perry to call an unwelcome third special session Tuesday afternoon. Though Eckstein noted that the issue is a major one for Travis County, he and his team also monitored a hefty load of other issues.


Eckstein told the court that during the 83rd Legislature’s regular session ending in May, nearly 1,500 of the more than 6,000 bills filed were tracked by Travis County. Of those followed, 284 were passed.


According to Eckstein, those actions include the creation of two new criminal courts – a district court and a county court of law – that will open in Sept.  2015. Legislators also created a civil filing fee which Commissioners Court set locally at $15. That money will go toward renovation and improvement of civil courthouse facilities.


Travis County took the lead on legislation that cleans up language in state statues regarding deferred compensation plans “so as to harmonize current state law with changes in federal law,” Eckstein said.


“We also passed legislation to allow the sheriff’s office to enforce commercial motor vehicle regulations,” he continued. “This is actually a very important safety issue for our taxpayers and traffic congestion issue.”


Because the 2013 legislative session began with an $8.8 billion surplus, legislators restored funding to $361 million in cuts to counties it made during the 2011 session to help cover a $27 billion shortfall. The $77 million cut to the Low Income Repair Assistance Program – an effort that helps vehicle owners with inspection-related repairs or down payments toward qualifying vehicles – was restored. In November, voters will have the opportunity to vote on property tax exemption expansions involving a break for surviving spouses of US military  personnel killed in action. If passed, the exemptions are expected to have a minimal effect on county revenue. 


Eckstein further reminded the court that voters will also weigh in on new water infrastructure legislation, a program that could create a $2 billion revolving fund for state water conservation and reservoir building contracts.

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