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Groups rate success, failures of 77th Legislature

by CONNIE MABIN on 5/29/01.

The reviews were mixed Tuesday as the groups that had been pushing their agendas for 140 days weighed in on how well, or not so well, they thought the 77th Legislature did.

State employees and teachers are happy about their pay and benefit raises. Bills awaiting Gov. Rick Perry's signature give state workers a $514 million pay boost and create a $1.24 billion health-insurance program for public school employees.

Lawmakers "despite fiscal constraints, effectively addressed the debilitating state employee turnover problem. They not only funded a meaningful across-the-board pay raise for all state workers, but improvements in several benefits," said Gary Anderson, executive director of the Texas Public Employees Association.

Environmentalists praised the defeat of a bill that would have allowed private companies to store low-level radioactive waste underground, and they celebrated the closing of a loophole that exempted old industrial plants from clean air standards.

"This was one of the most positive sessions for the environment in a decade," said Ken Kramer, president of the Texas Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative advocacy group, expressed concern about the $113.8 billion budget sitting on Perry's desk. The two-year spending plan is $11.8 billion, or 12 percent, more than the current budget.

"This budget is too big and growth in programs over the biennium will force a tax increase or drastic cuts in programs," said Peggy Venable, director of the organization.

Reggie James, executive director of the Southwest Chapter of Consumers Union, pointed to increased vehicle registration fees as an example of how consumers will pay for the acts of lawmakers.

But there were consumer victories, too, James said. "The Texas Legislature stood up for the little guy to protect him against usurious interest rates sought by scores of lobbyists."

A hard-fought battle to secure more than $437 million in new funding for financially struggling nursing homes was appreciated by advocates for residents and the industry. Both said the efforts were just a beginning to solving long-term problems.

"The major success was just the long, hard, earnest debate on very complicated issues surrounding the nursing home situation," said Tim Graves of industry group Texas Health Care Association

Beth Ferris of Texas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents applauded the omnibus bill that addresses insurance, lawsuit and care issues. "That's so important for us because that's what our fight is all about, quality of care for the residents," she said.

Farmers and ranchers applauded the creation of the Office of Rural Community Affairs, which will focus on rural issues.

"We are hopeful that these new ideas will make a difference for the agriculture industry in Texas in the future," said Donald Patman, president of the group Texas Farm Bureau.

The Texas Association Against Sexual Assault applauded $5 million in increased funding to prevention efforts and bills improving DNA testing and giving authorities more time to investigate cases.

Efforts to increase the number of engineering and computer science graduates in Texas and the creation of a privacy task force were among technology-related successes, said Mark Smith of the trade group AeA.