Ed Sterling

AUSTIN - Gov. Rick Perry delivered his biannual “state of the state” address Jan. 27 in the House Chamber of the state capitol, during a joint session of the House and Senate.

Despite a sobering revenue estimate, Perry said, the state can still invest in priorities that will help Texans weather the economic downturn.

The governor said his policy objectives include:

• Freezing college tuition for four years at the rate a student pays as an entering freshman.

• Revisiting the business margins tax and to consider raising the small business exemption to $1 million in an effort to protect small businesses in Texas.

• Emphasizing student performance accountability and funding of teacher incentive and dropout prevention programs like the Texas High School Project.

• Tapping the Rainy Day Fund to pay for critical water needs outlined in the state’s Water Plan.

• Diversifying the state’s energy sources.

• Passing a constitutional amendment limiting the government’s eminent domain authority to traditional public uses.

• Combating transnational gangs.

• Establishing a fund to help local communities prepare for and respond to disasters, such as hurricanes Ike and Dolly, which struck the state last year.

Perry also presented his budget ideas for 2010-11. He suggested:

• Replenishing the state’s economic incentive funds with $260 million to the Texas Enterprise Fund and $203.5 million to the Emerging Technology Fund - the state’s most powerful tools for job creation and research and commercialization funding - and $60 million to the Texas Film Incentive Program, a growing economic resource for the state, which contributed $102.4 million to the state’s economy in 2008.

• Allocating $622.5 million to continue and expand teacher incentive and reward programs, including the District Award for Teacher Excellence and Texas Educator Excellence Grant programs.

• Increasing funding for higher education incentives and funding for nursing education.

• Increasing student financial aid with $110 million for the TEXAS

Grant program; tripling funding for community college financial aid through the Texas Education Opportunity Grant; expanding the Skills Development Fund program to $60 million for the next biennium; and funding $10 million for the hospital-based nursing program that leverages partnerships between hospitals and academic institutions to graduate more nurses.

• Allocating $150 million for a disaster contingency fund for essential needs prior to and following natural disasters, including assisting local communities in recovery efforts.

• Improving border security with $135 million to continue the state-led border security strategy and to combat the growing threat of transnational gang activity across the state.

Bill links property taxes to pay

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, filed HB 866, a step toward linking property taxes to a homeowner’s ability to pay.

Villarreal’s bill directs the state comptroller to study and make recommendations for establishing a “circuit breaker” program in Texas to limit the amount of property taxes that may be imposed on a residence based on the owner’s annual income.

HB 866 also instructs the state comptroller to set up a panel of school districts, real estate agents and organizations to make recommendations on establishing the circuit breaker program.

At least 18 other states have circuit breaker programs that limit property taxes on homeowners for whom the tax payments represent a significant portion of their family’s income, Villarreal said.

Bill would expand CHIP coverage

Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, filed HB 787 to expand the Children’s

Health Insurance Program to cover more children.

“Clearly, this expansion isn’t just money well spent; it is a needed investment in the health of Texas children,” Cohen said.

CHIP provides a federal match of $2.52 for every dollar invested in the program by the State of Texas.

Texas leads the nation in the number of uninsured children and to date has turned away almost $1 billion in matching funds. In Harris County - Cohen’s home county - one out of every three people do not have insurance coverage.