Texas News Briefs

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says his staff has found as much as $6 billion to help with the budget shortfall with ideas ranging from using the emergency Rainy Day Fund to changing the way the state’s gas tax is collected.

But the Republican leader of the Senate was careful not to reveal too many details about the ideas, saying he’s discussing them with members of the Senate Finance Committee who must make the decisions about how to balance the next state budget despite a shortfall of at least $9.9 billion through 2005.

“These are tough times. We’ve got a budget shortfall, and one of the things that we’re all concerned about is making sure that we’ve got enough funding for all of our core services,” Dewhurst said Monday.

Dewhurst said until now the focus has been on making cuts to state spending. After weeks of budget hearings where agencies and needy Texans testified about the effects of deep cuts, the lieutenant governor said it’s time to begin the discussion about revenue – as long as it doesn’t mean new taxes.

Student buys half-page ad to sex partner he secretly videotaped

BRYAN, Texas (AP) – A former Texas A&M student who videotaped a sexual encounter with his girlfriend without her knowledge and showed the footage to his fraternity brothers must apologize to her in a half-page ad in the campus newspaper.

Brennan Bice, 21, was sentenced Monday to five years probation and a month in jail. He also was ordered to take out a half-page ad in the Texas A&M student newspaper, apologizing to his former girlfriend.

Bice was charged under a little-known law that makes it a felony to videotape or photograph someone without consent if the images are intended for arousal or sexual gratification.

Police said he videotaped consensual sex with his unsuspecting girlfriend, a freshman at Texas A&M, on Oct. 8 and showed the footage to as many as 15 members of his fraternity. When the woman found out, she notified authorities.

Bice, who was suspended from A&M and now attends Blinn College in Brenham, was taken into custody after the hearing on Monday the first day of spring break. He will remain at the Brazos County Jail until Sunday. Then, he will serve the rest of his 30-day jail sentence on weekday nights, said his attorney, Travis Bryan III.

Jury returns quick conviction for woman who smuggled gun into prison

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) – A Walker County jury wasted little time, taking just four minutes to convict a woman of smuggling a pistol into a prison for an inmate to use in a 1998 escape attempt.

Prosecutors said Virginia Jones Mitchell, 55, of Houston took a .38-caliber Derringer pistol to inmate Mark Roland Stallings during a visit to the Holliday Unit in Huntsville, believed to be in early August of 1998.

Stallings, a career felon now serving a life sentence at the Estelle Unit, used the pistol to hold a correctional officer hostage for almost four hours during the night of Aug. 7, 1998. Stallings was 31 at the time of the escape attempt; Mitchell was 50.

Prosecuting attorney Kelly Weeks said Mitchell and Stallings discussed his escape attempts for several months, referring to the small pistol as “the puppy” in letters, The Huntsville Item reported in its Tuesday editions.

Prosecutors said Mitchell had an ex-boyfriend buy the gun, which she smuggled into the unit during one of her many visits.

Legislators look into use of Social Security numbers

AUSTIN (AP) – The House Higher Education Committee has started looking at legislation to ban colleges from using Social Security numbers as student identification.

The move comes less than a week after hackers stole Social Security numbers and other information from more than 55,000 students and employees at the University of Texas at Austin.

Many colleges now require students’ Social Security numbers to register for class, check out books from the library and post grades on public bulletin boards.

Last year more than 14,000 Texans reported to the Federal Trade Commission that their identities were stolen.

Senate OK’s legislation to give State Board of Medical Examiners more power

AUSTIN (AP) – The Texas Senate has approved legislation designed to give the State Board of Medical Examiners more power to discipline doctors.

The bill strengthens the board’s authority to immediately suspend the licenses of doctors who have been convicted of a violent crime.

It also requires the board to give priority to complaints about doctors that involve sexual misconduct and quality of care and about license holders who currently are under disciplinary order.

“This bill gives the board new tools to ensure that the board can take swift and appropriate action on a few bad actors, the 6 percent of Texas doctors who cause 50 percent of all malpractice claims,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville.

The bill is part of a package of legislation meant to bring down medical malpractice insurance rates and increase patient access to doctors.

Coalition urges lawmakers to consider new taxes for Texas

AUSTIN (AP) – A coalition of public interests groups took an unusual message to the road: Texas may need new taxes.

The “Real Budget Project” is an effort the groups say is needed to educate Texans about how much it really costs to run a state of 22 million people. The group laid out a state income tax as a possible solution.

The coalition said that instead of focusing on budget cuts to deal with a $9.9 billion shortfall through 2005, lawmakers ought to consider changing the state’s complex tax laws that exempt billions from sales taxes and prohibit state income or property taxes.

“Texans believe the prisons are guarded, the children are educated, our water systems are tested and government is doing what is necessary. But the state budget shortchanges these and other programs. As with anything else, you get what you pay for,” said Bee Morehead, director of Texas Impact, an interfaith policy group.

The Texas Citizens Action Network, Citizens for a Sound Economy and Texas Public Policy Foundation were quick to speak up against a state income tax.

“Now is not the time to look at tax increases or dramatically changing our system. It’s time to examine how our tax dollars are being spent,” said Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Bill proposes attorney general’s office serve as clearinghouse in corporate fraud cases

AUSTIN (AP) – The attorney general’s office would serve as a clearinghouse in handling corporate fraud cases and investigations in Texas under proposed legislation intended to crack down on a recent wave of corporate scandals.

The legislation aims to make addressing corporate fraud more efficient by focusing enforcement and investigation duties in a Corporate Integrity Office within the attorney general’s office.

The new office would assist district attorneys, county attorneys and state agencies in investigating and prosecuting corporate fraud.

The package of bills also would create an “Open Corporations Law,” requiring companies with state contracts to immediately report any financial irregularities relating to the contract or the company’s financial position. Annual audits would be required of operations and use of state funds. Violations would be punishable with a $10,000 fine.