, Port Arthur, Texas


March 12, 2013

Budget contains important additional funding

AUSTIN — Time is moving closer to adopting a new state budget, at least on the Senate side of the state Capitol. You may remember from one of my earlier columns, our state's two-year budget originates this year in the Texas Senate and is formally designated SB 1. The Senate Finance Committee remains on track to vote for the budget on Wednesday (March 13), which means it will go to the entire Senate the following week.

Approving the budget is the most important thing we do during any regular legislative session, and I am pleased and proud to report very little disagreement among Senate Finance members as we studied and debated important priorities. I am grateful for the confidence Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst placed in me when he chose me to chair the Senate Finance Committee.

Highlights of the proposed Senate budget include:

• Increased funding for public schools, Pre-K, higher education and community colleges;

• Additional funding for mental health services/substance abuse initiatives and programs to reduce mental health waiting lists;

• Added funding and staff for Family and Protective Services' growing caseload;

• Increased funding to prevent state park closures and provide for necessary park maintenance;

• More funding for critical projects at our state-supported living centers and mental health hospitals.

Texas has some very critical life and safety issues at our state-supported living centers where some of our most vulnerable Texans live. These are individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have no family member to care for them or their family is unable to provide care due to the nature and severity of their disability.

We identified $169 million worth of deferred maintenance needs at these living centers. It is important we tackle this needed maintenance, and I have alerted the Finance Committee members of this urgent need. The committee will work hard to find a funding solution for this critical work.

As part of my on-going effort to confront the prescription drug abuse epidemic, I filed Senate Bills 1641, 1643, 1644, 1645 and 1646 last Friday to further strengthen current law within the Texas Prescription Monitoring Program and the regulation of pain management clinics. These bills will help ensure prosecution for individuals operating illicit pill mills, and will enhance the data collected by DPS to stop doctor shoppers. Physicians will be required to obtain additional continuing education concerning this epidemic when submitting their application for license renewal under the requirements in SB 1644.

Prescription drug abuse is both a Texas and a national problem. Since 2006, more than 1,400 accidental prescription drug overdoses have been recorded in Harris County alone. At least 188 people died from prescription overdoses in Harris County in 2011.

Nationwide, the number of overdose deaths from prescription drugs has more than tripled over the past decade. Illegal use of prescription drugs has impacted families all over the nation, as well as our health care systems. Nearly 500,000 emergency department visits in 2009 came from people misusing or abusing prescription drugs and taxpayers bore the costs of many of these emergency visits under the Medicaid or Medicare programs.

This issue first came to my attention from a constituent. Local sheriff departments also asked for help to curb the growing number of deaths and problems caused by a growing number of illicit pill mills.

I have passed legislation on this issue in previous sessions, and these newly filed bills mark another important step forward.

Hundreds of community leaders from Beaumont, Port Arthur and the Orange County area visited the Capitol last week as part of Golden Triangle Days in Austin. I think I can safely say everyone enjoyed the visit.

The delegation was briefed by state leaders and they met with various state agencies throughout their program. They also mixed business with entertainment by sharing the taste of their famous coastal fare and great Texas music. This program allows leaders from the Golden Triangle to present issues to their elected representatives and promote the best possible business climate and other important issues impacting economic development, education and workforce development, environmental, health care, insurance, taxes, and transportation, energy and technological infrastructure .

Friday, March 8 marked the deadline for bill filing, other than local bills, emergency appropriations and bills declared as an emergency by the governor. Fewer bills were filed this session than in recent legislative sessions. A total of 5,664 Senate and House bills were filed - compared to 5,796 in the 2011 legislative session, 7,419 in the 2009 session and 6,190 in the 2007 session. Those might sound like big numbers but, typically, fewer than 25 percent of those bills become law.

Sen. Tommy Williams represents Senate District 4 covering all or portions of Montgomery, Chambers, Harris, Jefferson and Galveston Counties, and serves as Chairman of the Texas Senate Finance Committee and is a member of the Senate State Affairs, Open Government and Administration Committees.

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