Sunday, May 7, 2006


Senate closes in on school finance reform
Monitor Staff Reports
AUSTIN–The business franchise tax bill, one of five bills to reform school financing, is set for a final vote before the Senate Monday, having received an affirmative vote on its first hearing. House Bill 1 was offered to senators out of committee unchanged.
“We are very pleased,” State Rep. Betty Brown told The Monitor Tuesday. “It just shows the broad support the bill has received.”
If passed by the full Senate, it could be on the governor’s desk and signed into law by the end of the week.
Revenues collected from the new state business tax would be used to pay for a massive school property tax cut and repair the state’s unconstitutional school finance system.
The legislation calls for replacing the current, easily avoided 4.5 percent franchise tax, with a 1 percent tax of nearly all midsize and large companies on gross receipts, after deducting for either employee compensation or the cost of goods.
Retailers and wholesalers would pay a half percent. Sole proprietorship, general partnerships and businesses grossing less than $300,000 a year would be exempted.
The bill is regarded as the most important bill to meet the Supreme Court’s order to find a new way to finance schools other than through property taxes, with a looming deadline of June 1.
Most major business associations backed the new tax, in part because many companies will get a corresponding cut in their property taxes and not see a large increase in their total tax loads. A few sectors, especially large law firms, are adamantly opposed.
It is estimated that about 300,000 corporations and partnerships will be subject to the tax, which is estimated to generate $3.8 billion.
The bill will “cut property taxes by the greatest amount in state history,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden was quoted in Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News.
Opposing the measure, Sen. Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso counters, “This is the biggest tax increase in state history.”
Most supporters of the tax recognize that it represents a tax swap. “The greatest tax shift in history, hailed by some,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
A second bill calls for a sales tax on used cars at no less than 80 percent of the vehicle’s Blue Book value, instead of as it is now, on a unverifiable price reported by the seller. That measure cleared the house 21-10, with all no votes cast by Democrats.
A third bill requiring all new revenue raised from tax increases to be dedicated for future property tax relief ignited fiery debate in the Senate.
Its final form was amended, allocating some of the revenues for education. Under the Senate version, all revenue raised would go to reduce the current property tax rate of $1.50 per $100 of property value to $1.
Once the $1 target reduction is reached, revenues would be split 60-30 between further property tax reduction and school districts. Once property tax reductions reach 75 cents per $100, all new revenue would go to school districts.
Those opposing this plan point to other future needs the state may have for those funds, including transportation. At least one senator said that this measure goes beyond the order of the court.
“We don’t have to do a property tax reduction,” Sen. John Whitmire of Houston said. “I disagree that the people of Texas want a property tax cut more than anything else. I for one, am tired of toll roads. I’m also tired of tuition going up.”

KC courts squeezed for space
Special to the Monitor
KAUFMAN–Tripled population, heavy caseloads and no more room.
Kaufman County voters will get an opportunity change that by approving a $21.5 million bond election Saturday, May 13, to build a new courts building.
The shortage of room heads the list of what is currently clogging Kaufman County courts.
Added to that is a looming danger caused by inmates in chains being escorted through narrow hallways, within inches of jurors, prospective witnesses, victims and other parties.
The inmates must file into the office of the district clerk to sign documents, while attorneys and the public also wait in a single line for files.
Public restrooms must be shared. Victims, witnesses and potential jurors must step around prisoners and deputies to use the facilities.
Restrooms are also used to store active files, making it necessary for a single-file line through District Clerk Sandra Featherstone’s office to access the files.
Older files are stored across the street, with no records kept as to who uses them, no sprinklers for fire protection, and no smoke alarms.
Staffers must cross a busy street to retrieve files.
A pregnant district attorney staffer was struck by a vehicle while she attempted to cross the street last year.
Prisoners are not secured when being transferred to the courthouse. They are let out of the vehicle and then wait until the deputies can get to them to secure their restraints.
District court judges must trade off every other week, as there is no second large courtroom in which to conduct a jury trial.
The district judge who is holding court in the smaller courtroom during the off week conducts judicial business while lawyers, the public and others walk past his bench and court participants to get to the court coordinators’ office, because there is no hallway leading to it.
The bailiff of the 422nd District Court is housed in a closet on the second floor.
A new justice center will enable Kaufman County to hear and resolve court matters more promptly.
Since the new Courts Building/Justice Center is being planned on county-owned property adjacent to the Law Enforcement Center, the costs and safety risks associated with moving inmates from the jail to the courtroom would be greatly reduced.
Sheriff deputies relieved of the responsibility of transporting and escorting prisoners will be available to protect the public and to patrol throughout the county.
It is contemplated that a more centralized security system will help protect staffs, judges, prisoners and the general public, and will provide a more secure environment in which to conduct judicial business.
Currently, courts, documents and case files are spread in various locations, making it necessary to constantly transport documents and files.
The newly established second county court-at-law is scheduled to operate out of the old jail on Washington Avenue, and the court’s staff also must transport files and cases of information.
A new courts building will alleviate the problem.
The facility as planned will include approximately 98,088 square feet.
Eight courtrooms will be on the second floor.
Each courtroom is designed to be 1,800 square feet, contain a 14-person jury box and have seating for 90-100 people.
Four courtrooms would be immediately occupied upon completion of the building.
Also included would be restrooms, a public copy room, a secure vestibule for inmates, an accountant’s office, deputy clerk’s office, district clerk’s office, clerical work area, pending file room, historic file room, general file room, break room and supply area.
It is contemplated the new justice center would house the following departments and courts – district attorney and staff, 422nd District Court, 86th District Court, courtrooms, jury deliberation rooms, witness interrogation rooms, two county courts-at-law and staff, and the district clerk and county clerk offices handling matters and services that relate to the courts.
Courts for the mentally ill and juveniles, along with the support personnel and records for those dockets, also would be housed in the new building.
If the courts building is not built, the county will see an increase in the costs of storage, rental lease payments, time and labor involved in the operating costs of a splintered court system – which would include the new county court-at-law being physically located away from the county clerk, the law library and all necessary support systems.
If the construction is delayed, the cost estimates prepared for the design will in all likelihood become outdated.
Security problems are also expected to increase, recalling the danger of more incidents of violence, such as was seen in Tyler and Fort Worth, that ended in death for innocent bystanders.
Both district judges have been threatened, and these threats must be taken seriously.
If the building is constructed as planned, the following offices are contemplated to be housed in the existing courthouse – auditor, juvenile probation, treasurer, child protective services, certain public services of the county clerk, county extension agent, purchasing agent, fire marshal, county judge, public works, adult probation, indigent health care and the commissioners.