Highway funding, juvenile sentencing bills advance amid abortion battle
AUSTIN -- Approved by a majority Republican House State Affairs Committee just after midnight, a controversial bill imposing sweeping restrictions on abortions now heads to the Texas House of Representatives for debate.
The bill has drawn thousands to the Texas Capitol over the last two weeks. While it has dominated the headlines, it's one of three issues that died in the last special session and which lawmakers have been asked by Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) to take up again in a second special session of the 83rd Texas Legislature. The Texas Senate is set to vote next week on a bill to fund highway repairs and one to address constitutional concerns over juvenile sentencing.
In October 2012, 17-year old Jake Evans told a 9-1-1 operator he shot and killed his mother and sister in their North Texas home. Evans was charged as an adult with capital murder, facing possible sentences of execution or life without parole under state law. Both are punishments the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional for juveniles under the age of 18. The discrepancy between state law and the high court's ruling has put prosecutors handling cases like that of Evans in a difficult position.
"It's important because there are many pending cases in the state of Texas where a 17-year old is alleged to have committed capital murders and the prosecutors are waiting to try them," said attorney and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who filed SB 2 in order to change the mandatory sentence for 17-year olds convicted of capital murder to life with parole. "As well, there are many young offenders currently serving a life without parole sentence that has now been declared unconstitutional, and we need a vehicle to reform those sentences."
Texas is also in desperate need of money to repair and expand aging highways, which the Texas Department of Transportation estimates cost about $4 billion a year just to keep up. State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) says roughly $900 million of that could be raised through his plan SJR 1, which would ask voters to approve the diversion of a portion of oil and gas revenues from the state's savings account to fund roads.
The measure would require the Economic Stabilization Fund maintain at least one third of its biennial cap, ensuring a minimum balance of roughly $4.8 billion over the next two year period. Nichols says basing the minimum balance on the fund's floating cap would allow the floor to grow slowly over time as state revenues increase, and create a funding vehicle for roads without increasing taxes, fees or borrowing.
"There's been a lot of money borrowed, and I think the members this session said we're not going to borrow more," Nichols explained to WFAA sister station KVUE. "We need to come in and fix this, come up with a real long term solution. This is part of that solution."
Nichols' and Huffman's measures cleared their respective committees by unanimous votes Tuesday and will likely pass the full Senate next week, yet both are expected to face some opposition in the House. The two measures were ready for final passage in the Senate before the end of the first special session, but were placed on the back burner by Senate Republicans before state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) began her filibuster of abortion regulation bill SB 5.
Both chambers are gone for the rest of the week and will return next Tuesday to take up legislation reported favorably from committees this week. As another contentious special session gets underway, the summer is only heating up.
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