Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

July 2, 2013

Austin: Roads, sentencing bills advance; abortion debate looms

By Jim Vertuno and Will Weissert
Associated Press

AUSTIN — A major transportation funding plan and a new sentencing option for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder advanced in the Texas Senate on Tuesday, as lawmakers looked to make quick work of those issues with major fights still to come over new abortion restrictions.

The transportation and juvenile justice bills have widespread bipartisan support and were set to pass in the previous special session until they were wiped out as collateral damage of the Senate filibuster against the abortion measure.

Both issues have been overshadowed in the new special session by abortion, which was likely to heat up again later in the day with a hearing in the House. The hearing, scheduled to last until midnight, was expected to draw hundreds of witnesses — one day after thousands of demonstrators flocked to the Capitol.

The transportation funding measure is a constitutional amendment that would divert nearly $1 billion per year from the state's cash reserve fund to spend on building and maintaining roads. The reserve fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, is filled with oil and gas severance taxes.

State transportation leaders have said the Texas needs to spend $4 billion more per year to keep up with the state's rapidly growing population. Supporters of the plan admit it won't cover the state's financial needs for roads but say it lays the foundation for a pay-as-you-go approach to building roads after years of amassing billions in long-term debt. Critics warn it puts transportation at the front of the line for money and could leave lawmakers in a bind if they face another crisis in the feature.

The Senate Finance Committee met for nine minutes Tuesday before sending the plan to the full Senate with a unanimous vote.

"We just approved spending $1 billion in about 10 minutes," quipped Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

If approved by the Legislature, the plan would go to voters statewide in November.

The Texas Department of Transportation manages nearly 200 million miles of roads and more than 50,000 bridges. The agency largely relies on a 20-cents-a-gallon fuel tax that hasn't been raised since 1991. Lawmakers have struggled with transportation funding for years and have been reluctant to raises taxes or fees in a Legislature controlled by a Republican majority for a decade.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee took 18 minutes before unanimously approving a bill to move Texas closer in line with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for convicted killers younger than 18.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, is proposing capital murder sentences for 17-year-olds that includes life in prison with the option of parole after 40 years. Current state law only allows a life sentence without parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder, while 14- to 16-year-olds in the same position can be eligible for parole after 40 years behind bars.

Huffman refiled the same bill that passed the committee and the full Senate in both the regular and first special sessions. The House has wanted to give judges or juries the option of sentencing 17-year-olds to life without parole.

Opposing the bill were youth advocate groups and the Texas Defender Service.

Rebecca Bernhardt of the Texas Defender Service predicted that even if lawmakers offer parole options after 40 years, few would be released. While Texas has a statewide parole rate of about 30 percent, Bernhardt noted that between 1995 and 2007, only two people convicted of capital murder were released.