Transportation, Criminal Justice Bills Headed to Senate

State Sens. Robert Nichols and Joan Huffman.
State Sens. Robert Nichols and Joan Huffman.

Six hours before a marathon state House committee hearing on abortion, two Senate committees quickly kicked out less controversial bills on transportation funding and criminal justice reform to the full Senate on Tuesday morning.

The Senate could vote on Senate Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 2 as early as next week. The measures address two issues — transportation infrastructure funding and sentencing guidelines for 17-year-old murderers — that Gov. Rick Perry included in the second special session’s agenda. Similar pieces of legislation died on the last day of the first special session amid a dramatic fight over abortion legislation. Both Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, refiled their legislation soon after Perry announced a second special session.

In a nine-minute hearing, the Senate Finance Committee voted 11-0 Tuesday morning in favor of SJR 1, from Nichols, which matches the version of Senate Joint Resolution 2 that the Legislature nearly passed last week. The measure would ask voters to approve amending the state Constitution to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund, raising nearly $1 billion a year in additional financing for road construction and maintenance. The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs about $4 billion in additional funding each year to maintain current congestion.

About 40 minutes later, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted 4-0 in favor of SB 2, from Huffman, which is similar to Senate Bill 23 from the first special session. The bill revises the sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder to comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated mandatory life without parole for capital murderers younger than 18.

Both measures could be debated on the Senate floor as early as next week.

Nichols and Huffman are taking opposite approaches to changes the House made to their measures in the first special session.

Nichols adopted the House’s changes, including one that required that oil and gas severance taxes not be diverted to the highway fund in years that the Rainy Day Fund’s balance is less than a third of its legislative cap, a figure that varies over time. That version passed the House last month with 105 supporters, just barely clearing the 100-vote threshold needed for constitutional amendments.

“I feel very comfortable on the Senate side,” Nichols said. “It obviously was very close on the House side so we’ll be working on it with the members to try and answer all questions.”

Huffman opted to refile her bill as it passed the Senate, ignoring changes made in the House. The version approved in the lower chamber would allow judges and juries to sentence 17-year-olds to life without parole as long they consider mitigating factors. Some critics have argued those changes violate the Supreme Court ruling that prompted the legislation.

At the hearing, state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said he was concerned that House members would make the same changes to the bill as in the first special session. Huffman said that she preferred her version of the bill but that she could not control what happens to it when it reaches the House.

“I do believe what they did before was acceptable under the law,” Huffman said.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.