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With just over two months left until the 87th Regular Session ends on May 31st, the Senate passed a number of key bills off the floor and onto the House this week. Slowed by the pandemic in the early days of session, the legislature must make up for lost time.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote out the budget bill next week, and that could put the bill before the full Senate later that week or the next. During the markup process on Wednesday, committee Chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson told members that the billions in federal aid passed earlier this month might not get here before the session ends.

"I want to manage expectations; we don't have $17 billion to spend between now and the end of session like a lot of people seem to think," she said. "I'm delighted that we're going to have more money to spend on education and some other things - at some point. But right now, keep this budget tight."

On the floor this week, the Senate approved bills aimed at reforming utility regulators, protecting the right to assemble to worship, and capping co-pays for insulin purchases.

All three measures cleared the body on Thursday. The first, SB 2154, would reform the embattled Public Utility Commission following its response during and after the winter storm blackouts.

"We all know that reform is necessary at the PUC," said bill author and Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner. "We need strong leaders, we need individuals that have common sense and that are representing and looking after the best interests of Texans."

His bill would seek to increase regional diversity and diversity of background on the commission by increasing the number of members from three to five, and expanding eligible membership to industry experts, attorneys, engineers and accountants. It would also require all members be current Texas residents. Should the bill become law, the governor would have 30 days to appoint a new PUC chair.

Two Senators, Angela Paxton of McKinney and Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, offered complimentary legislation that would let Texas voters decide whether to bar government prohibitions on church gatherings during a state of emergency. Though protected as essential services in Texas throughout the pandemic, Hancock said that some municipalities overstepped their authority and violated the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom when they considered placing attendance limits on worship services.

"It is our duty to protect the freedom of worship in Texas, and to clarify what we know to be constitutionally true and right, through this provision," said Hancock.

If signed into law, the measures approved Thursday would put the question before voters on the November ballot.

Finally, Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst won passage of her bill to cap the out-of-pocket expenses for insulin purchases made by individuals on state-regulated health insurance plans. She said that the fact that the price of insulin has risen one-thousand percent over the last 25 years has forced too many of the 2.8 million Texans with diabetes to choose between life-sustaining medicine and other critical needs such as food or rent. By helping to make insulin affordable, said Kolkhorst, Texas would not only help those with diabetes, but also save the state money in the long run.

"It actually will help many Texans be more healthy, and we'll have cost savings down the road when they don't show up in emergency rooms, they don't end up with kidney damage and other things because they're controlling their sugar levels," she said.

Under her bill, SB 827, a person on a state-regulated insurance plan would pay no more than $50 for a 30-day supply of insulin. Kolkhorst said a companion piece to her legislation, one that would help control insulin costs for those without insurance, is currently moving through the House.

All three bills will now head to the House for approval.

The Senate will reconvene at 11 a.m. today, March 29.

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