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Texas Government Set to Return

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AUSTIN -- If you're a college student and you paid attention to the 2003 Legislature, perhaps you knew your tuition could be going up. Or, maybe you didn't have a clue.

If your child was removed from the Children's Health Insurance Program after state budget cuts, you probably knew legislators were responsible for changes in your family's health costs.

Cell phone users who like to talk and drive might have been too busy to learn that lawmakers considered banning the practice, but never passed the bill.

What state legislators do or don't do on issues both large and small affects millions of people. As Tuesday's new legislative session approaches, some Texans shared their opinions on how the last session two years ago impacted their daily lives.

Faced with a $10 billion shortfall, legislators made deep budget cuts, and the Children's Health Insurance Program - a low-cost plan serving thousands of low-income working families - took a major hit.

New CHIP eligibility requirements dropped more than 150,000 children from the rolls. Some children landed in the government-funded Medicaid program for poor families. Some went to doctors and hospitals for treatment whether they could pay for it or not.

Ramona Meadows, a school nurse at Milam Elementary School in the border town of McAllen, found herself on the front line of medical care after the cuts. Parents ask her to determine whether a child really needs a doctor before they spend the money to see one.

"If they had CHIP coverage or insurance coverage they would be more likely to go to the doctor first, get treated, get taken care of and come to school well," she said.

Meadows also encounters parents who are no longer sure whether their children have medical coverage. Some sit in her office while she tries to reach a CHIP representative by phone.

"It seems like there's a lot of confusion not only among the parents but also in the medical community as to whether or not CHIP is covering things," she said.

Lupita Sanchez, 34, works part-time with the Catholic church in Cameron Park, a community near Brownsville that was identified in the 2000 U.S. Census as the poorest place in the United States.

Her children have health coverage thanks to her husband's job working construction for a large company. But for most people she knows, health coverage is spotty. Many seek cheaper medical care across the Mexico border. Some go to a hospital even if they can't afford to pay, and that puts them in debt, she said.

"I think most of us are on that list they have for whenever you owe something, you don't pay for any reason," Sanchez said.

A bill that allowed Texas universities to set their own tuition rates passed in 2003, taking that power away from the Legislature. Since then, tuition has gone up significantly at many colleges around the state as each university has come up with its own tuition rates.

Some students at the University of Texas, just down the road from the Capitol, said they weren't tuned in to the Legislature when the decision was made.

"I really don't know what's going on with all that stuff. I knew that tuition is probably going to take a hike up there," said Adrian Caswell, 21, a music major. "People have been talking about it sort of, just around. I've been seeing the headlines in the paper."

Caswell said he doesn't plan to pay attention if legislators revisit the issue this session.

But Brandon Anderson, 20, a radio-television-film student, said he may focus more on what lawmakers are doing. He was a freshman preoccupied with adapting to college life when tuition deregulation passed two years ago.

"It's a little hard to kind of keep up financially with increased tuition," he said.

In wide-open West Texas, there are plenty of opinions on whether lawmakers should ban the use of cell phones by motorists. Such a measure failed in 2003, but it could resurface in this year's session.

Last year the Texas Department of Public Safety reported that there were 1,032 cell phone-related traffic crashes in 2001 in Texas, the first full-year statistics available.

Brad Phillips, 36, who manages an oil change business in Lubbock, said legislators should reconsider making it illegal to drive and talk on a cell phone unless a handsfree listening device is used.

"I definitely think it would be a whole lot better, if you don't have a handsfree device, to pull over, finish your conversation and then go on," Phillips said.

Rhonda Rendon, 39, a switchboard operator in Lubbock, said she thought the cell phone bill passed in the last session and that it was being phased in. She hopes it will actually pass in the coming session.

Rendon recently watched as a young driver chatted away and made an illegal turn from an incorrect lane. Using a handsfree device while driving is a good idea, she said.

"It's safer," she said. "You don't have to have your hand up to your ear and you can watch traffic."