State Capital Highlights

AUSTIN’Anyone who buys the old joke about a camel being the end product of committee work does not know much about the Texas Legislature. While favorably reporting the paper equivalent of a camel out of a legislative committee is not unheard of, the committees are where things get done or not, depending on what you’re hoping for. “Fifty-four percent of the bills filed in this session will die in committee in the house of origin,” said Texas Legislative Service managing partner Andrew K. Fish. “What happens in committees is tremendously important every session.” By logical extension, the folks who chair those committees are even more important. Though several thousand bills will be filed this session (at a rate Fish says is about 110 bills a day), only 30 percent of them will pass. The life or death decisions on those bills happen in committees with the whack of a gavel or the stroke of a pen. Though education, prisons and privacy will be big issues, the biggest two issues will be passing a state budget and redistricting. Because of that, two Senate committee appointments made by newly selected acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff last week are of major import. The Mount Pleasant Republican, who had been chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee before his election as president of the Senate, replaced himself with a liberal Democrat, Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston. With the economy trying to hitchhike toward the south, the state revenue pie, of which everyone always wants a big piece, will not be as ample as everyone had once hoped. That means the way Ellis runs the committee will be of critical interest to anyone with a financial stake in Texas government, from state employees hoping for a pay raise to the largest state agencies. The amount of money dedicated to everything from prisons to highways to welfare essentially hinges on this committee. In state government, money always is the bottom line. But every decade, U.S. Census data necessitates another form of pie cutting: Redistricting. If anything is any more important to lawmakers than funding and taxation, it is the size and geographic extent of their districts. Not to mention Congressional districts and the need for two new House seats. Ratliff named Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio as chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee. A Republican who has played a key role in Texas open meetings and public information law issues over the last several years, Wentworth will be at the center of the redistricting issue. The Senate has 12 standing committees. Ratliff surprised many with his appointments, which put half the committees under a Democrat, half under a Republican. Watch your wallet With all the political news going on this has not gotten much attention, but car insurance rates in Texas are headed up. State Farm Insurance announced last week it would increase its rates an average of 1.7 percent effective Jan. 28. Other companies planning on raising their rates, and the percent of increase, include: Allstate Property and Casualty, 4.2; Geico General, 4.8; and Mid-Century, 9.5. USAA, United Services Automobile Association and Allstate Indemnity, however, plan rate reductions. The decrease, though, will be less than 1 percent.

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