The Texas Senate will start up a new session on January 8 and Senator Robert Nichols says he is ready to get started.

Nichols was elected to the Texas Senate in 2006 and represents 19 counties which includes the greater part of East Texas, Montgomery and Orange County. The Texas Senate is the upper house of the Texas Legislature and this session will bring 44 new state representatives for a total of 150 and six new state senators for a total of 31. They will be sworn in on the first day of session before tackling the many issues awaiting them. Senators serve four year terms while representatives serve two years. The beginning of a session also signifies being appointed by the Lt. Governor to the many committees.

Nichols will dive in head first with his recent appointment of  chairman of the Transportation Committee which oversees all of TxDOT, intercoastal waterways and ports. This is a policy area Nichols has cared about for quite some time and which is very important to the state. Locally, the port of Orange will be a topic of discussion and become ‘extremely important.”

Nichols intends to focus on the long-term funding of transportation infrastructure.

“Transportation is a passion of mine,” Nichols said.

Nichols said a big issue in the transportation committee is funding. Especially, how they are going to find the funds to pay for the many needed projects.

He intends to propose sales tax that is currently paid on vehicles to be used in the construction of  roads and bridges. According to Nichols, the money collected goes into a general fund and everything is paid from it. He wants to phase in the plan over the course of the next ten years which will enable TxDOT to begin to “streamline projects.”

He also sits on the Health and Human Services Committee, Intergovernmental Relations Committee which oversees health care issues, Child Protective Services, hospitals, food stamp programs and medicaid.

Nichols is currently on the Sunset Advisory Committee as vice-chair which votes on the issues all year long and not just when in session. They work on issues such as inter-governmental relations. During last session, they abolished four agencies saving taxpayers $161 million in one two year cycle.

Nichols also is a member of the Natural Resources Committee and the Nominations Committee. In the Nominations Committee, the governor can appoint someone to fulfill a position, but first they must be confirmed by the committee.

He will also tackle other issues such as health care, education and water which are consistently remain at the top of the list of topics.

The education issue is on the minds of many across the state. This year, they will work on funding and accountability. Nichols recently met with all the superintendents in his district to hear about their concerns and ideas on how to approach the problems with solutions.

According to Nichols, Texas Governor Rick Perry has declared they will not participate in the affordable health care act.

“There will be a tremendous amount of pressure onto Texas lawmakers,” Nichols said.

Bill pre-filing began in early November and is still ongoing, however, according to Nichols, not all problems constitute the need for a new law, but on the rare occasion one is necessary.

The first bill Nichols recently filed was to slow the rapidly rising taxable values on Texas homes.

“Escalating tax appraisals make home-ownership less and less affordable,” Nichols said in a press release. “We need to keep citizens from being taxed out of their homes and significantly limit increasing tax appraisals, which result in larger tax bills.”

Senate Bill 95 cuts the maximum rate of increase in half, from 10 percent to 5 percent. Nichols pointed out the importance of limiting the increase in people’s property taxes, even when the value of their home increases.

“When your property value increases, it doesn’t mean you have any more money in your pocket,” said Nichols. “We must keep the maximum increase as low as possible so individuals and families can continue to afford living in their homes. In Texas we have placed an unfair share of the tax burden on homeowners.”

Nichols’ second bill, Senate Bill 96, would prohibit state or local governments from taking private land for recreational purposes.

“No homeowner should lose the roof over their head so others can have a place to play,” said Nichols. “Eminent domain should never be used for recreational purposes, period.”

Ending eminent domain abuse continues to be a priority for Nichols. In his first two sessions as senator, he co-authored legislation creating a Landowners’ Bill of Rights and has consistently voted for landowner protections.

Nichols has also been working on bills for welfare reform. He co-authored Senate Bill 11 with Senator Jane Nelson to include drug testing for welfare benefits and to restrict the items recipients can purchase with taxpayer-paid benefits. The bill also establishes a 3-year lifetime limit on benefits.

“Our welfare system is designed to help those who are willing to help themselves,” said Nichols. “Taxpayers have a reasonable expectation that their hard earned money will not be used to feed a debilitating addiction, but that it will be used to help make recipients independent and productive again.”

Senate Bill 11 will require a screening assessment to determine whether there is good cause for a person to submit to a drug test to establish eligibility for financial assistance benefits. If a person is found to be using illegal drugs, they will be ineligible for benefits for a period of one year. A “three-strikes and you’re out” provision gives welfare recipients an opportunity to attain drug-free status while still protecting taxpayers.

The legislation also updates mandatory employment provisions for financial benefits, a concept Nichols passed in prior sessions for local health programs. “Taxpayers expect those who are capable of employment, or participating in job-training programs, to do so. In addition to protecting taxpayers’ money, this will also encourage more Texans to return to work and to financial independence,” said Nichols.

Lastly, the bill restricts state financial benefits from being spent on alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, lottery tickets, adult entertainment and bingo.

“I would encourage people to come to the Capitol when bills are up for public testimony,” Nichols said. “It’s your Capitol and belongs to you.”

He also encourages people to come by the senate office when in Austin to discuss issues on their mind to help find a solution to the problem.