Friday, February 25, 2011

Where do Legislators get ideas for laws?

The 82nd Texas Legislature is now in session and even though the State Budget will receive  overwhelming attention due to the estimated $15 to $27 billion budget deficit (see my posts on Public Education and Medicaid, these posts on Grits for Breakfast about Criminal Justice cuts and the higher ed cuts here), lawmakers still have other issues on their minds.

So how do they come up with ideas for bills? (If you've ever seen School House Rock, you know that a bill is a document, that if it makes it through all the hurdles in the legislature and then is signed by the Governor it becomes a law.)

Ideas for bills come from several sources:

So what bills have our elected representatives submitted for the 82nd Legislative Session?

I have listed all of the San Antonio/Bexar County State Representatives and Senators, a brief description of their district, constituency and bills they have authored.  If you want more detailed information click on the links I've provided.  The district link will show a map of the district. Bills authored will take you to a general information page that lists all of the bills authored by your legislator.  For more detailed info on bills, click on the HB (house bill) and SB (senate bill) links; there you will find a full history of the bill including the text, actions, amendments, authors, captions and stages.  If it's a bill you are really interested in you can have alerts sent to your email about it. (See the alerts link for each bill on the right side of the webpage.)

Texas State Representatives

Trey Martinez Fischer (D)  District 116
  • NW San Antonio on either side of Fredericksburg Rd from Zarzamora to De Zavala Rd, Balcones Hts
  • Pop 74% Hispanic (66%) and African American, mostly civilians, average employment (but higher among Hispanics and African Americans), 19% living in poverty, 25% didn't graduate high school, 24% with Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Drunk driving, Database of family abuse and date rape offenders, cell phone use while driving, Texas budget priority, human trafficking

John V Garza (R)  District 117
  • West Bexar County, part of NW San Antonio 1604 @ IH10, Part of southern San Antonio, including Lackland AFB, Helotes
  • Pop 69% Hispanic (64%) and African American, 8% military, average unemployment, 19% in living in poverty, 28% didn't graduate high school, 17% with Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
No bills authored, this guy doesn't even have an office in his district

Joe Farias (D)  District 118

  • East and South Bexar County, Live Oak, Selma, Universal City, St Hedwig, part of Southside of San Antonio
  • Pop 67% Hispanic (65%) and African American, mostly civilians, average unemployment over all, but unemployment for Hispanics higher than average, 18% living in poverty, 33% didn't graduate from high school, 11% have Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Health issues, sex education, taxation on disabled, consumer credit regulations

Roland Gutierrez (D)  District 119
  • East outside 410, part of East Side inside 410, southern downtown and part of West Side inside 410
  • Pop 72% either Hispanic (66.2%) or African American, mostly civilians, with higher than average unemployment, almost 20% living in poverty, 32% didn't graduate from high school, 10% have Bachelors or higher  
Bills Authored
Health issues (elder care, diabetes), sales taxes, eligibility for elections, military, teacher pension board

Ruth McClendon Jones (D) District 120
  • East Side of San Antonio, part of Northside, Kirby, East Bexar County between Crestway, I10 and FM 1516
  • Pop 72% Hispanic (42%) and African American (31%), mostly civilians, with higher than average unemployment, 21% living in poverty, 26% didn't graduate high school, 13% have a Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Wrongful convictions, Auto Insurance mile-based rating, Funding for Rail projects, taxation surviving spouses of disabled veterans,  In memoriams and congratulation resolutions

Joe Strauss (R)  District 121

  • Part of Northside, and North East San Antonio, part of Far North East Bexar County, Olmos Park, Terrill Hills, Alamo Heights, Windcrest
  • Pop 65% Anglo, mostly civilians, low unemployment (3%), 6% living in poverty, 7% didn't graduate high school, 39% have a Bachelors or higher
Speaker of the House, doesn't author bills, but assigns all members to committees and and presides over the House of Representatives, probably the most powerful non-elected position in Texas government.

Lyle Larsen (R) District 122
  • North Bexar County, Hollywood Park, Hill Country Village, Shavano Park, Grey Forest, Castle Hills, part Fair Oaks, part of northern San Antonio between 281 and I10 to Loop 410
  • Pop 71% Anglo, mostly civilians, low unemployment (3%), 5% living in poverty, 5% didn't graduate high school, 50% Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Allow City County Merger, drug testing for financial assistance, automobile taxes, public nuisances

Mike Villareal (D) District 123
  • Downtown San Antonio, part of Westside off Commerce and Buena Vista, part of Northside inside 410 between Fredericksburg and McCullough, part of North San Antonio between IH 10 and Nacogdoches and south of Wurzbach Parkway
  • Pop 73% Hispanic (70%) and African American, mostly civilians, slightly above average unemployment, 21% living in poverty, 20% didn't graduate high school, 16% with Bachelor's or higher 
Bills Authored
Public education, Higher education, Sales and Franchise tax relief, Municipal record keeping

Joe Menendez (D) District 124
  • Westside of San Antonio between Loop 13 and Hwy 90/151, and West San Antonio between 410, 1604, 90 and Culebra/Tezel
  • Pop 71% Hispanic (63%) and African American, 4% military, slightly higher than average unemployment, 15% living in poverty, 9% didn't graduate high school, 16% with Bachelor's or higher
Bills Authored
Prostitution and graffiti punishment, Cell phone use in vehicles, Health services and issues, Investigation of and collective bargaining practices for Police and Fire officers, Release from property liens, dissolution of Bexar Met Water District, Bullying and Cyber bullying  

Joaquin Castro (D) District 125
  • Part of North West San Antonio inside 1604, including Leon Valley, part of Northside and Westside inside 410
  • Pop 68% Hispanic (64%) or African American, mostly civilians, average unemployment rate, 16% living in poverty, 25% didn't graduate from high school, 21% have Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Public Schools, school counselors and Community Colleges

Texas State Senators 

Carlos I Uresti (D) District 19
  • The largest district in Texas with 23 counties, including western and southern Bexar County, including San Antonio west, south and east of downtown, Helotes, Grey Forest, Lackland AFB, Sommerset, Elmendorf and Kirby, his roots are in San Antonio
  • Pop 75% Hispanic (70%) or African American, mostly civilians, above average unemployment rate, 24% living in poverty, 38% didn't graduate high school, 11% Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Low income assistance for Health, Property Tax and Utility usage, Date Violence, Cell Phone use in Motor Vehicles, Ground Water Conservation, Subdivision Plat Revision, Commendations

Judith Zaffirini (D) District 21
  • A 17 County district that includes East Bexar County, encompassing part of eastern San Antonio, Converse, Shertz, Universal City, southern half of Live Oak, Randolph AFB, Saint Hedwig and China Grove
  • Pop 76% Hispanic (71%) and African American, mostly civilians, higher than average unemployment rate, 25% living in poverty, 13% didn't graduate high school, 14% Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Health Services for the disabled and college students, Higher Education grants, loans and programs , Cell Phone use in Motor Vehicles, Public School discipline, immunizations and dual credit, Mineral rights, Employee rights, Customs brokerage, Juvenile offense caseworkers, practice of Veterinary Medicine, Commendations

Jeff Wentworth (R) District 25
  • A 6 County district including North Bexar County, the northern part of San Antonio between 1604 and 410 and part of Northside of San Antonio, Fair Oaks Ranch, Camp Bullis/Stanley, Shavano Park, Hollywood Park, Hill Country Village, northern half of Live Oak, Selma, Castle Hills, Olmos Park, Alamo Heights, and Terrill Hills
  • Pop 59% Anglo, mostly civilians, lower than average unemployment rate, 8% living in poverty, 8% didn't graduate high school, 37% Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Public land uses, Regulation of land use in counties, State Hwy fund, Cell Phone use in Motor Vehicles, Public Education student discipline, Juror rules in civil trials, Fair business practices, regulation of Solar Energy by property owner's associations, Withdrawals from annuities, etc, Fees for marriage ceremonies, Tax Liens, US Congress term limits, Commendations 
Leticia Van De Putte (D) District 26
  • Only the Western portion of the City of San Antonio from Downtown and bounded by I 10, Loop 1604 and Hwy 90, Leon Valley and Balcones Heights
  • Pop 75% Hispanic (70%) and African American, mostly civilian, average unemployment rate, 18% living in poverty, 27% didn't graduate high school, 19% Bachelors or higher
Bills Authored
Human Trafficking, Military issues, Health Services, Taxation policies for the disabled,  Public Education discipline, Commendations, Dating Site Criminal Background Checks

In case you are wondering about the huge variation in size of the State Senatorial districts, it has to do with population.  Senator Uresti's district while vast in land area, is small in population compared to Leticia Van De Putte's much smaller appearing district, which is only a portion of San Antonio, but has a much more concentrated population.

If you live outside of Bexar County you can find out who your Texas State Representative and State Senator are and the bills they have authored here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Parents Ask to Pay More Taxes for Schools

Here's an interesting solution to the public education crisis.  In Mission Kansas, parents are filing a federal lawsuit to make Kansas lift its property tax cap so they can pay higher taxes.  Now this is in a well to do school district, but I think a lot of parents would be willing to pay more in taxes to keep their child's school from be gutted.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ban Plastics, What Can We Use Instead?

Many cities across the US have banned the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging, particularly in restaurants.  The reasons to do this range from the plastic derivative's inability to be recycled, the chemical used to make them (polystyrene) leeches into your food and the water table when in landfills, and they NEVER go away!

Clever entrepreneurs have come up with substitutes to the ubiquitous Styrofoam and plastic bags and many are biodegradable and compostable.  Composting is a process you can do at home and then once the packaging has broken down, you can use it to fertilize your garden.  Here are some of the plastic alternatives available now.

Bagasse made from sugar cane and wheat straw fiber
  • For hot food containers
  • Biodegradable and compostable
  • Paper-like packaging, comes in clamshells, coffee cups, and plates
  • Soak proof, microwave safe (unlike plastic Styrofoam) 
  • Withstands temperatures up to 200 degrees F.

  • For grocery and retail store bags and films
  • Made from Mater-Bi, a corn product 
  • Biodegradable, commercially compostable

  • For cold drinks and food
  • Made from PLA (polylactic acid) derived from corn grown in the US
  • Biodegradable, compostable
  • Similar to clear plastic cups, salad boxes and clamshells


  • PLA plus Talc, made from Chinese corn and Talc
  • Used for utensils 
  • Withstands temperatures up to 200 degrees F
  • Biodegradable, compostable (commercial facilities only)

Dell Bamboo Packaging
  • Made from bamboo, which is strong, fast growing, local and helps promote healthy soil and protects against erosion
  • Used to cushion Dell Computer products
  • Biodegradable, compostable

  • For shipping needs, foam product similar to Styrofoam
  • Takes less energy to produce
  • Made from mushroom seed husks (cotton and buckwheat hulls) and mushroom roots (parts people don't eat)
  • Biodegradable, compostable

Products on the horizon, not yet available.
  • For insulation in homes
  • Use local agricultural castoffs like seed hulls and burrs to lower transportation costs 
  • biodegradable, fire resistant, VOC and chemical free, nonallergenic, mold resistant
 Bacterial Polyesters
  • Biodegradable
  • Commercially compostable
  • Could be used to make films, wraps, bottles, combs, molded products
The City of San Antonio already has a yard waste composting program, adding on a compost operation for biodegradable packaging seems like a logical next step in San Antonio's quest to "Creating a Pathway to Zero Waste."
Now if they could just come up with a similar substitute for Saran Wrap! 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Do I Get Financial Aid for School?

It's that time of year to file for Financial Aid or as the insiders refer to it FAFSA (Federal Student Aid).  Even if you don't start school until next fall, you need to file now in order to receive grants, work-study money and student loans.  Also, FAFSA isn't just for four year colleges, you can apply for aid if you are planning to attend a community or junior college, technical school, or a certification program.

There are three ways to apply for aid.  If you are a minor (under 18) and not living with your parents you can apply as an emancipated minor and can immediately apply for aid.  If you are an adult and you support yourself, get your personal taxes filed as soon as possible, tax info has to be verified by the IRS to receive aid. If you are still living at home and are a dependent of you parents, your parents need to file their taxes ASAP.  The good thing is, if you owe money, you don't have to pay it until April 15th, you just have to have your return filed.

Now you are ready to either have someone prepare your FAFSA for you, for a charge of course, or fill out the form yourself.  Since you're applying for financial aid, why would you want to spend money to receive it?

You will need to have the following information to fill out the form

  • Social Security Number
  • Date of Birth
  • Military Service Information
  • Bank and Savings Account Balances
  • Investment Worth Information, including Real Estate, but not your primary residence
  • The name or names of schools you are thinking of attending (FAFSA informs the schools and they sometimes will contribute to the aid as well, especially if you are attending a state school) Use the School Code Search to make sure FAFSA has the correct school.
  • Yours or your parent's tax return (specific information is required on the FAFSA form, luckily they tell you which line on the tax return to use, see the side bar comments on the online form)
Sometimes filling out the tax part of the form can be a little confusing.  If you have a job, but you are not supporting yourself, make sure you fill out your parents tax information.  If you have a job, but don't make enough to file, you have that option on the form, then you can input your wages.  If you make enough money to support yourself, and you make less money than your parents, enter your tax information, not your parents, in fact you don't even need to put in any information about your parents, if this is the case.
    For you guys out there (18 to 25 years old), you also need to register for Selective Service (otherwise known as the Draft).
    Under current law, all male U.S. citizens are required to register with Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday. In addition, foreign males between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States must register. This includes permanent residents (holders of Green Cards), refugees, asylees, dual citizens, and illegal aliens.
    Now I know this sounds kind of scary, but the likelihood of you being drafted is pretty low for the foreseeable future.  It is very unpopular politically and most legislators want to keep their jobs, so don't worry about it.   Registering also makes you eligible for federal jobs and federal job training, so it's worth doing.
    Click here to register online with the Selective Service System.

    One other thing you will need to do before you can file your FAFSA is request a signature PIN.  This allows you to sign your application online without having to snail mail in a written signature.   Apply here for a PIN.  You will need
    • Your Social Security Number
    • Date of Birth
    • Your Email Address
    • Your Mailing Address
    The PIN site will have you pick a security question and you can either pick your own PIN or they will assign you one (they will mail it to you).  Write this PIN number down in a safe place because you will use it every year you apply for FAFSA.

    So now you are ready to file! After you have filed and signed you application you will receive notice from FAFSA and the school you applied to about your financial aid options, you can choose the ones that you want and the information will be sent to your school.  After you register for classes money will be payed directly to the school.  You may need to go to the financial aid office at your school the first year just to make sure everything goes smoothly.  Once you have applied for FAFSA the government sends you a reminder each January to reapply for the coming school year and most of your information will be saved from year to year.

    Just a word of advice, if you can live without going away to school, you can save a lot of money by living at home with your parents.  The highest cost of College is Room and Board and that's generally what Student Loan money covers.  If you can get by without the loans, you'll be better off because reneging on a Federal Loan is not an option and paying off an Ivy League English degree will probably take you the rest of your life.

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    Who Owns the Water in Texas? Surface Water

    In Texas, ownership rights to Surface water (lakes, rivers, streams and creeks, etc.) depends on how long your family has owned property in Texas.  If your landownership goes back to pioneer days, then you may have Prior Appropriation Rights, if someone in your family filed a claim for water use by 1969.  In this case, your family would own the surface water on your property and can use it in a reasonable manor that doesn't infringe on the rights of other water users.

    If your property ownership doesn't go back that far, then you have to apply for a permit with the
    Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) because Surface water in Texas (after 1967) belongs to the state.
    Water in the rivers, streams, underflow, creeks, tides, lakes and every bay and arm of the Texas portion of the Gulf of Mexico is considered state water. Its use may be acquired through appropriation via the permitting process established in Texas Water Code, Chapter 11, and Title 30, Texas Administrative Code.
    So surface water regulation is pretty well established in Texas and its use is not as contentious as ground water usage.  Where problems occur has to do with sharing of water resources. Texas shares its surface water resources with other US states and Mexico.  Texas has many strong ties with Mexico, population, commerce, and language, but what truly divides us is water.  In the future squabbles over water are likely to become even more fractious as populations swell on both sides of the border.

    Texas and Mexico share the water from the Rio Grande and its tributaries along with two man made lakes, Lake Falcon and Lake Amistad.  Since 1944 the US has had a water treaty with Mexico.  Since Texas has by far the longest border we are the ones most effected.  Under the treaty Mexico agreed to send 350,000 acre feet of water each year from the Rio Grande to its neighboring US states to the north.  In return the US would send 1.5 million acre feet per year from the Colorado River to Mexico.  But over the years Mexico started to lag behind on its commitment. Water policy has always been a problem for Mexico and most of its states on the border are in the dessert where water is scarce already.  Droughts exacerbated the problem. Between 2000 and 2001 the situation was so dire that the mighty Rio Grande didn't have enough water to drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

    In 2004, US Water News reported that Mexico was not meeting its obligations under the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty.    Texas Farmers and Ranchers were angry.
    After years of losing land, money and producers due to a lack of water, 17 irrigation districts, North Alamo Water Supply Corporation, and 29 farmers sent notice to Mexican officials that, under the NAFTA agreement of 1994, unless Mexico delivers what is due, they will seek up to $500 million in damages from the Mexican government.

    "Mexico has unlawfully taken over 1,000,000 acre feet of Texas water and given it to Mexican farmers so their farmers can grow crops. All while the crops of farmers in the Rio Grande Valley have dried up and blown away," said Nancie Marzulla, attorney for the claimants in a recent press release.
    Droughts aren't the only problem, flooding in 2010 caused by a small hurricane and a tropical depression sent water barreling down the Rio Grande destroying lives and property and  leaving people stranded on both sides of the border.  And with the drug war raging on the Mexico side of the border, even recreational water use is threatened

    Fights over water have plagued man for centuries, but as the world's population continues to swell fights over water will likely lead to all out war.  Water will be the new oil.