Texas Lawmakers Face Special Session
AUSTIN, TEXAS — THE dust has not yet cleared after the close of the 72nd Texas legislature last week, but already one thing is known: There is still much work to be done. Gov. Ann Richards's (D) folksy, hands-on approach during her first session at the helm got generally good marks from legislators. But many say the true test of her leadership begins July 8, when lawmakers return to Austin for a special session on the state budget and its estimated $1.5 billion shortfall.
In July, Mrs. Richards could choose to resurrect some legislation that died this session, including a curb of the state Supreme Court's Alfaro ruling. The failed bill would have protected Texas businesses from being sued by foreign persons injured by their products. Richards has promised to spend much of her term wooing business to Texas, and business interests want the bill.
The new ethics bill could also resurface in July. After several workovers by a House-Senate conference committee, a largely hand-scribbled bill passed literally minutes before the close of the session. When copies of the bill were made available days later, discrepancies between what the House passed and what the Senate thought had passed became obvious. The Senate ethics committee has asked to resolve the differences at the July session.
Richards was largely successful in promoting her populist agenda, including significant legislation on two major campaign promises: insurance and prison reform.
Insurance: The new bill is not expected to lower rates significantly. But repealing the antitrust exemption that insurance companies now have will help consumers, says John Hildreth, director of the Southwest office of the Consumer's Union.
The antitrust exemption allows companies to engage in price-fixing and anti-competitive behavior, Mr. Hildreth says. Returning insurance to market demands will make ``regulation more consumer oriented,'' he says.
The law also gives the Texas Department of Insurance power to investigate fraud and insolvency in the industry, a move supported by insurance companies.
But the industry was surprised when lawmakers shifted the burden of proof from the claimant to the insurance company. Now a company must either pay a claim or produce proof why a claim is not compensible. Mr. Hildreth says shifting the burden of proof brings insurance companies in line with other competitive business practices. Yet others say companies will have to spend more to investigate claims, eventually hiking premiums.
Governor Richards is expected to sign the bill.
Prisons: Texas prisons have been under federal court supervision since 1978, as a result of a prisoners' rights case. Ruiz v. Estelle charged that the state had violated prisoners' constitutional rights by allowing overcrowding and inadequate facilities. The court ordered state prisons to remain at or below 95 percent capacity to ease crowding and to raise living standards. Since then, excess state prisoners have been housed in county jails at county expense. In an attempt to force the state to reimburs e counties for housing state felons, 14 counties are suing the state.
The Legislature has asked the counties to drop their suits and accept a settlement under which the state promises 28,500 new beds by 1995, distributes $23 million to counties housing state prisoners, and pays expenses of some state prisoners in a county jail. The bill also gives counties financial incentives for alternative sentencing, such as drug treatment programs.
The counties must decide by June 16 to either accept the state's offer or continue litigation.
Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire hopes all suing counties, including Travis, will accept the state settlement. ``The state has recognized it has a responsibility [to the counties],'' he says. ``There's no guarantee we'd get any [payments] from the courts.''
A second prison bill hopes to end the federal supervision in the Ruiz case. The bill is essentially a promise from the state to uphold the living standards achieved while under court supervision. Rep. John Culberson (R) of Houston, the bill's author, says Texas prisons are now in concert with the mandates of the federal court. ``They don't need to look over our shoulder any more,'' he says.
Representative Culberson's bill also gives the Texas Department of Criminal Justice the authority to exceed the 95 percent cap if the intake of new prisoners is carefully planned. When the department could ensure adequate facilities and care for new prisoners, state felons housed in county jails could be transferred to state facilities. The state would resume control of its prisons as soon as the Ruiz case is settled.