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P.O. Box 12068
Capitol Station
Austin, Texas 78711
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March 4, 2011 - Session Watch

In the search for solutions, small change can avoid the need for cash

By Sen. Carlos Uresti

Those who have been keeping up with 82nd Legislature have heard a lot about the problems Texas is facing, particularly regarding the $27 billion budget shortfall. But with the 60th day of the session approaching on March 11 — when the legislative floodgate opens — it's time to talk about some solutions.

While the shortfall itself will require some difficult decisions, including some painful budget cuts, it is forcing legislators to find creative, innovative ways to solve problems with little or no cost. And a policy change that actually saves money is all the better.

Most of the bills that will be taken up by the House and Senate won't make the headlines, but that doesn't mean they can't have a big impact. Sometimes, just a small change in policy — a little tweak to the way we do things — can make an entire system or process more efficient.

Here's just one example.

The first of my bills to pass out of a committee this session is Senate Bill 118, which will revise the process regarding court-ordered mental health services.

Under current law, a mentally ill person must have had at least 60 consecutive days of court-ordered inpatient mental health services in the preceding year before a judge can order extended services. This cumbersome process has forced the courts to use recurring 90-day outpatient commitment hearings, resulting in up to three times the number of hearings, doctors' exams, process service, and transports.

Simply by dropping the word 'consecutive' from this rule and easing the requirement for extended services, this process would become less costly and more efficient for the courts and the patients. Bexar County Probate Judge Oscar Kazen estimates it will save approximately $1 million in associated court, processing, and medical related charges in Bexar County alone. He didn't have a statewide estimate, but said the savings would be "huge."

Senate Bill 118 passed out of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee on a unanimous vote, and that reflects another important component in legislative efforts to effect change — bipartisanship.

With redistricting, Voter ID, sanctuary cities and other partisan issues yet to be decided, legislators on both sides of the aisle must seek and find common ground whenever they can. That's the only way to get anything accomplished in a session filled with distractions.

So in the weeks ahead, as Senate and House budget writers grapple with the shortfall, it's going to be more and more important to develop solutions that don't come with a price tag. And there's a lot we can do, particularly in the area of child protection and education.

For example, with cuts looming for Child Protective Services, we can expand the “Baby Moses” age limit from the current 60 days post birth to one year, giving troubled parents more time to place their child in a safe haven; and establish guidelines for Parental Child Safety Placement Plans that ensure children aren't left alone with relatives who would harm them.

To ease the cuts facing public education, we can give school districts the authority to furlough teachers, avoiding layoffs and limiting increases in class size. And my House colleague, Rep. Scott Hochberg, has filed a bill to exempt six- and seventh-grade students from the TAKS test if they scored well in the fifth grade, saving time and money on a round of standardized testing that really isn't necessary.

These are just a few of the possible solutions to the problems facing Texas. There are many more out there. We just have to be smart in finding them and work together to make them happen. In the coming weeks, I'll discuss a few more.

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©2011 Carlos Uresti Campaign  •  A.M. Hernandez, Treasurer  •  P.O. Box 240431  •  San Antonio, Texas  •  78224