House, Senate approve bills to protect children in foster system

AUSTIN — Both houses of the Texas Legislature last week passed bills to improve the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in response to Gov. Greg Abbott's call for emergency action to improve child protection programs.

Tasked with protecting children, elders and people with disabilities from abuse, neglect and exploitation, the DFPS, part of the Texas Health and Human Commission, has attracted attention in recent years for inadequate funding and staffing to meet obligations. 

Senate Bill 11, whose primary author is Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, was approved by the Senate on March 1. The bill would shift to private contractors the DFPS’s foster care management mission, but the state would remain the ultimate guardian over foster children, Schwertner said. The bill also contains oversight and accountability provisions to enable close monitoring by the DFPS and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Meanwhile, on March 2, the Texas House approved HB 4 by Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, to provide additional support for family members who care for a child who has been removed from his or her home. Also approved was HB 5 by James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, to give the DFPS more autonomy by making it a separate agency with its own commissioner.

In passing HB 4 and HB 5, the House has taken “important steps toward providing better protection and care for children in terrible circumstances," Speaker Joe Straus said.

Senate OKs ‘con-con’ bills

The Texas Senate on Feb. 28 approved Senate Joint Resolution 2, an application to the U.S. Congress to call a convention of the states, and SB 21, rules for selecting and controlling delegates to that convention. Joint resolutions must be approved by both chambers of the Legislature, but do not require approval by the governor.

Primary author Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said eight other states have passed resolutions similar to SJR 2.

“It is abundantly clear to me,” Birdwell said, “that the Congress is incapable of or unwilling to propose amendments that limit its own power or that of the other branches to return our nation to the original spirit of federalism intended by our founders. The mechanism for that is found in Article V of the U.S. Constitution, which requires Congress to call a convention for the purpose of amending the nation's founding document if 34 states formally petition for it. Any amendments approved at that convention are adopted if 38 states ratify it.”

Perry joins Trump cabinet

The U.S. Senate on March 2 confirmed Rick Perry as secretary of the Department of Energy.

“America has been blessed with vast natural resources and the technology to utilize them," Perry told his new employees the next day. "I am committed to helping provide stable, reliable, affordable and secure sources of American energy. An America-first energy strategy is important to create jobs and grow the economy.”

Perry also took a moment to poke fun at himself for not remembering, during a presidential debate in late 2011, the name of the Department of Energy in a list of federal agencies he said he would eliminate if he were elected president. In his March 3 remarks, Perry expressed his appreciation of the department’s work and pledged to be a strong advocate for it.

Perry served as governor of Texas from December 2000 to January 2015.

Sales tax revenue grows

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on March 2 announced state sales tax revenue totaled $2.4 billion in February, 4.4 percent more than in February 2016. 

“While tax collections from oil and gas mining remain subdued, receipts from telecommunications, construction, services and retail and wholesale trade increased significantly,” Hegar said. 

Sales tax revenue is the largest source of state funding for the state budget, accounting for 58 percent of all tax collections in fiscal 2016. Total sales tax revenue for the three months ending in February 2017 was up by 2.8 percent compared with the same period a year ago, Hegar added. 

DSHS gives Zika update

The Texas Department of State Health Services on Feb. 28 announced that as of Feb. 24, six Zika virus cases have been confirmed in Texas for calendar year 2017.

DSHS posts updates at TexasZika.org every Tuesday on the number of Zika virus disease cases in Texas by the patient’s county of residence. 

Cases confirmed this year, by county, are: Bexar, 1 case; Brazoria, 1; Cameron, 2; Lubbock, 1; and Smith, 1. Statewide, some 310 cases were confirmed in calendar years 2015 and 2016.

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