orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

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July 2, 2013

Roads, sentencing bills advance; abortion looms

(Continued)

AUSTIN, Texas —

The Senate Finance Committee met for nine minutes Tuesday before sending the plan to the full Senate with a unanimous vote.

"We just approved spending $1 billion in about 10 minutes," quipped Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

If approved by the Legislature, the plan would go to voters statewide in November.

The Texas Department of Transportation manages nearly 200 million miles of roads and more than 50,000 bridges. The agency largely relies on a 20-cents-a-gallon fuel tax that hasn't been raised since 1991. Lawmakers have struggled with transportation funding for years and have been reluctant to raises taxes or fees in a Legislature controlled by a Republican majority for a decade.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee took 18 minutes before unanimously approving a bill to move Texas closer in line with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for convicted killers younger than 18.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, is proposing capital murder sentences for 17-year-olds that includes life in prison with the option of parole after 40 years. Current state law only allows a life sentence without parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder, while 14- to 16-year-olds in the same position can be eligible for parole after 40 years behind bars.

Huffman refiled the same bill that passed the committee and the full Senate in both the regular and first special sessions. The House has wanted to give judges or juries the option of sentencing 17-year-olds to life without parole.

Opposing the bill were youth advocate groups and the Texas Defender Service.

Rebecca Bernhardt of the Texas Defender Service predicted that even if lawmakers offer parole options after 40 years, few would be released. While Texas has a statewide parole rate of about 30 percent, Bernhardt noted that between 1995 and 2007, only two people convicted of capital murder were released.

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