Hundreds of bills in limbo as end of Texas legislative session looms

Marilyn Tennissen May 29, 2009, 2:16am

With the end of the 81st regular session of the Texas Legislature set for June 1, it has been a wild and crazy ride for many proposed bills, including several being watched by tort reform groups.

The state Capitol has been a colorful place the past few weeks, with lawmakers resorting to stalling tactics one day and marathon approval sessions the next. The Senate managed to suspend time to avoid a deadline, and late into one night Senators could be heard crowing like roosters to cast their vote on a cockfighting bill.

But in the midst of the circus, Texas tort reform advocates have kept their eye on legislation that could affect the state's litigation system.

One of the bills of concern to the Texas Civil Justice League and Texans for Lawsuit Reform was Senate Bill 1123 and its companion House Bill 1811. The bills would have changed the standards in asbestos-related mesothelioma lawsuits that required plaintiffs to introduce proof of the dose they claimed contributed to their disease.

A change in the causation standard set out in the 2007 Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores decision would have left defendants defending themselves against mesothelioma claims for which they may have had no responsibility.

SB 1123, authored by state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, was approved by the Senate in April, despite unified opposition from the business and legal reform community. HB 1811, authored by state Sen. Craig Eiland, D-Texas City, floundered in the House Committee on the Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence.

Like hundreds of other bills, SB 1123 did not make it past the House. The House had until midnight Tuesday, May 26, to pass Senate bills.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, House Democrats began stalling for time to keep a controversial voter identification plan from passing. The members "chubbed," or talked at length about minor bills ahead of the voter ID bill.

The delay tactic let hundreds of Senate bills, like SB 1123, die in the House.

From that point, the only way to get much of the state's business passed into law was to tack items onto House bills that were still pending in the Senate.

Senate worked madly ahead of a midnight Wednesday, May 27, deadline. Hundreds of bills made it through without debate during the evening. In order to keep dozens of House bills alive, reports from Austin said the Senate sergeant-at-arms unplugged the clock in the Senate chamber at 11:58 p.m.

At one point, Senate staff proudly rolled a shopping cart filled with 400 House bills it had passed through the House hallways, to show the lower chamber what it accomplished while the House chubbed.

One of the bills being whipped around in the last stretch was HB 4409 regarding the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.
The TWIA funds had been wiped out by Hurricane Ike last fall, and Gov. Rick Perry had threatened to call a special session if the windstorm issue was not addressed during the regular session.

Without a change in state law, property and casualty insurance companies with customers in Texas would be required to cover the up-front cost of nearly all claims should a hurricane batter the coast this year or in 2010. The insurance companies could then make up for their losses through tax credits.

The House bill was the last bill passed on Wednesday and amended to include its companion SB 14 which had passed in April and then tacked on to HB 4409 which relates to emergency preparedness.

Last year's Hurricane Ike resulted in $8 billion in Texas claims, including about $2 billion in TWIA windstorm claims. If a similar hurricane resulted this year, insurers would be expected to cover $1.8 billion of the costs.

But by Thursday, May 28, the fate of the windstorm bill and about 200 others remained unclear, as a procedural fight brought things to a halt.

Thursday night the House began to return many of the Senate bills with questionable amendments attached. House procedure calls for germaneness on bills, meaning that all amendments had to be directly related to the main bill.

A deadline of midnight Thursday was set to determine if the Senate would be required to strip off the amendments.

A long-discussed cut in state franchise taxes for as many as 40,000 small businesses was one of those bills that hung in the balance.

HB 4765 was approved Wednesday by the Senate and would exempt companies making less than $1 million in annual revenue from paying the state's franchise tax, taking about 40,000 businesses off the tax rolls, amounting to a $172 tax cut over the next two years. Current law exempts companies making less than $300,000 a year.

As of press time, the fate of the bills had not yet been determined.

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