Senator Robert Nichols comes to Orange
Just because the session is over, doesn’t mean State Senator Robert Nichols job is completely done.
He was in Orange Tuesday to talk to the local Rotary Club. But, not before stopping by for an interview.
During the last session, but also in years past, there where three main topics — education, water and transportation.
Last year at this time, he made it a point to meet with all of the school superintendents in Senate District 3. It took three months to go to all 102 school districts which is 10 percent of the state’s school districts. But, it is said to be a success since he was able to help get some much needed bills passed. For the most part, the superintendents wanted something to be done with the “over testing” of the students, they wanted to offer different career paths and for the test to not count for 15 percent of their Grade Point Average.
As a result, the legislature was able to pass HB5 which reduced the number of tests from 15 to five. The superintendents told Nichols they had 170 days per school year to teach students. They informed him about 42 to 46 days were taken to do the testing. In addition, the school had to use certified teachers to monitor the tests and be in the hallway during testing which left substitute teachers to be in the classrooms.
In June, Governor Rick Perry signed HB5, a bill that reduces the quantity of state-mandated tests, into law. Texas public schools will implement the positive changes including decreasing the required End-of-Course exam and increasing flexibility for high school graduation requirements. It will now be up to the Texas Education Agency to put the plan into action.
Superintendents also wanted to bring back more vocational classes such as welding classes. Local schools such as the Bridge City ISD has recently added welding classes which have proven to be very successful.
In addition, two years ago, funding was dramatically cut. According to Nichols, not all of the money was returned to school districts, but “a good portion” was returned to them.
“I am amazed they got all three,” Nichols said although he is very pleased with the success. But, added, he felt across the state, other districts had the same problems or they would have not gotten the bill passed.
Water is and has been on the minds of many people for generations.
“We have it and everybody else wants it,” Nichols said. “We are pretty blessed in Southeast Texas.”
Urban areas such as Dallas, Austin and Houston which have increasingly grown over the years don’t have the water to meet the needs of the people. The state of Texas grows in population about 1,200 people per day and there is a 96 percent growth in urban areas. Some cities such as Conroe increase in population by 50 percent every 10 years which leaves the area scrambling to find new ways to increase their water production. San Antonio had the same problems, but drilled deeper than the aquifer. An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials such as gravel, sand, or silt, from which groundwater can be extracted using a water well. They drilled down to the “catahoula” which is more than 1,600 feet down and is brackish water. But, they have desalination treatment plants to treat the water. San Antonio has two of these plants with plans to build more as needed.
Desalination refers to any of several processes that remove some amount of salt and other minerals from water. Salt water is desalinated to produce fresh water suitable for human consumption or irrigation.
There will be a constitutional amendment on the water issue. It is number six on the ballot. Nichols wants people to vote to allow the amendment to pass. Over the next few months, he intends to talk to people about the vote.
“Although we are OK on our water, on the constitutional amendment, it’s important for us to help them solve their problems or they will come over and take ours,” Nichols said.
This constitutional amendment will aid in providing for the creation of the State Water Implementation Fund and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund to assist in the financing of priority projects in the state water plan to ensure the availability of adequate water resources.
“It will put $2 billion from the rainy day fund into a special water fund managed by the Texas Water Development Board,” Nichols said. “It will be used to loan out for water projects that in fact generate new sources of water.”
Examples of this could be to build a water reservoir, to recycle water or conservation of water. Nichols said.
On the transportation issue, Nichols said the most amazing bill is the one that will not be a constitutional amendment this year, but will allow $1.2 billion a year to be collected from oil and gas severance taxes to repair roads and bridges which are not toll roads. According to Nichols, oil and gas severance taxes are accrued when taxes are charged when oil is produced and is “severed” from the grounds.
The other thing allows port authorities to access funds from the Texas Mobility Fund to allow for improvements such as dredging or building docks.
Another constitutional amendment to be put before the voters will allow widows of veterans who were killed in action to be exempt from paying property taxes.
Other things done during the session will allow tax cuts on the business franchise tax. Up to this point it was an exemption for small businesses for up to $1 million. Up to this point the bill had to be passed every two years. However, now it is more permanent which will impact about 40,000 businesses. On the larger businesses, a 2.5 percent tax cut in 2014 and a 5 percent tax cut in 2015 will be implemented, which will impact about 800,000 businesses.
There will also be $240 million worth of tax credits for research and development.
In addition, there will be a telecom tax credit for cables used for telephone, computer and data. When they bought the cables and laid them in the ground, there was a state sales tax.
“We are giving them up to a $50 million tax credit because ultimately, it is the taxpayer that has to pay it,” Nichols said.
Over the long haul, people could see their rates reduced from the cable and phone companies.
Finally, local people could see a $10 annual fee removed from their electric bill. The fee was helped to subsidize other people who are low-income and cannot pay their bill. The fee was implemented when electric companies were de-regulated.