Texas, Nevada Legislatures Close Shop, Leaving 19 States In Session

Texas and Nevada ended their 1999 legislative sessions this week, with education issues and tax cuts topping the agenda for the Lone Star state and several new crime bills and privatization of the workers compensation program the major accomplishments in Nevada. Both states paved the way for electric utility deregulation.

Of the 16 state legislatures still in session, nine -- California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- meet for most, or all, of the year.

With Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign as a backdrop, the state put education as a top priority with 75 percent of new state revenues going into schools.

"Education is a proven winner for candidates if they can handle the issue," University of Texas Professor Bruce Buchanan told Terrence Stutz of the Dallas Morning News. "George Bush will be selling himself as an effective governor who is able to take credit for helping improve the state's education system."

Legislative leaders also agreed to spend the bulk of the state's budget surplus -- totaling $6.4 billion over the next two years -- on education.

Included in that is a $3.8 billion school funding bill that gives all teachers an unprecedented $3,000 pay raise and homeowners some relief in their school property taxes.

A letdown for Bush was the defeat of private school vouchers, something brother Jeb was able to do this year in Florida, where he was governor.

Texas property owners will see an average 6-cent cut in their school property tax rate, a savings of $60 on a house taxed on $100,000 of value. High-wealth districts get no tax break because they will receive little or no funding from the state.

In addition to the $1.35 billion in property tax relief was $506 million in sales and business tax cuts.

Lawmakers approved a record $98.1 billion budget and a series of property, sales and business tax cuts totaling nearly $1.85 billion.

Also passed were measures requiring parental notification for abortions obtained by minors, lowering of the state's blood alcohol limit for drunk driving and the adoption of a social promotion plan aimed at stopping schools from moving failing students to the next grade.

The issue sparking the most partisan debate was a measure to strengthen the state's hate-crimes law named for James Byrd, Jr., a black East Texas man who was dragged to his death last year. The Democratic-controlled House passed the legislation, but Senate Republicans -- who make up a majority in that chamber -- rejected it, saying the bill was unnecessary.

The Legislature also approved several bills to ease welfare recipients' transition into a job, including providing more money for child care and allowing recipients to keep more of their state benefits as they begin to earn wages.

Lawmakers in Carson City, Nev. completed their fast-paced, 120-day session Monday, after agreeing to privatize the state workers compensation system in hopes of giving injured workers higher payments and an extended rehabilitation program.

On the casino front, lawmakers rejecting a bill to raise the tax on gamblers, but passed a law prohibiting gaming resorts from contributing to political campaigns.

A partial mental health parity bill passed, which will require health insurance providers to allow members with severe mental disorders up to 40 days of hospitalization a year and 40 visits to a psychiatrist or other counselor. The law does not apply to companies with 25 employees or less.

Several crime bills passed -- named after entertainment personalities or victims -- which increase the penalty for aggravated stalking from six to 15 years and allow for murder charges to be filed longer than the previous one year and a day deadline after an assault. The Sherrice Iverson bill, named after the 7-year-old girl murdered in a casino near the California line, makes it a crime to fail to report to police a violent offense against a child 12 years old or younger.

An anthrax scare in Las Vegas in February 1998 prompted legislation to outlaw possession or stockpiling of a deadly biological weapon, which could bring a term of up to life in prison.

Gov. Kenny Guinn's millennium scholarship program was the final bill approved before adjournment, and will provide $2,500 a year in scholarships for high school students going on to universities and $1,250 for those going on to community colleges. To be eligible students must have a "B" average.

There was no money in the budget for pay raises for teachers for the next two years, which prompted the teachers union to announce a drive to impose a 5 percent tax on business profits to filter more money into public schools.

Although money was also not included in the budget to give state workers a pay raise, Guinn and lawmakers announced a 2 percent raise for the 15,000 employees starting in July 2000.

Defeated bills include: lowering the level for a drunk driving conviction from 0.10 to 0.08, mandatory bargaining rights for state workers, overhauling the public records law, repealing the helmet law for motorcycle riders and chemical castration of sex offenders.