Coming Up in the Texas Legislature the Week of April 10

Now that the House has passed its own version of the state budget in place of the Senate’s in SB 1, time-honored ritual requires the Senate to reject the House effort, triggering appointment of a conference committee to iron out the differences. Though news reports have emphasized differences between the two versions that are many and real, the two sides are just about half a billion dollars apart on a general-revenue budget exceeding $100 billion. That small gap means chances of a deal are enhanced, if the two sides are so inclined.

The House budget passed by a margin of 131 to 16, far exceeding the two-thirds threshold needed to tap into the Economic Stabilization Fund, which the House bill does to a modest degree (using just $2.5 billion of the $12 billion in this so-called Rainy Day Fund reserve). That draw from the ESF reserve includes half a billion dollars for retired school employees’ health care.

The overall impact of the House bill, increasing school funding $1.5 billion, would be to increase per-pupil aid by $210 on average. In contrast, the Senate bill would keep per-pupil funding stagnant and use increased local property-tax revenues to allow state effort to be reduced by $1.4 billion or more. The House also does a better job of funding higher education, which faces significant cuts in the Senate version.

The increase in per-pupil funding in the House bill is contingent on passage of HB 21, the partial school-finance overhaul by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). This bill has yet to be scheduled for a floor vote, but we anticipate that it will be set on the House calendar soon. Huberty has put together a remarkably broad array of usually competing interests in support of this bill, with only a handful of the highest-wealth districts grumbling about the deal. This breadth of support cannot be lost on state senators whose districts encompass the same broad array of interests.

While the stage is readied for the conference committee on the budget, other items of concern are coming up on the Senate floor and in House and Senate committees. Here are some of those items.

–The full Senate may vote on SB 788, the bill by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) that cuts benefits and raises costs for TRS-Care recipients who are not yet eligible for Medicare. While Medicare-eligible retirees may face higher costs, too, they at least would be assured under the bill of a decent level of coverage under a Medicare Advantage plan. Not so the retirees who have yet to reach age 65 and thus do not yet qualify for Medicare. Best estimates are that the under-65s would be offered a high-premium, high-deductible plan that would make coverage unaffordable for many ($4,000 deductible, $7,000-plus “maximum” out of pocket, but a substantial portion of costs above the “maximum” would still be theirs to bear).  We hope for better from the Texas House, on this as on so many other issues.

–House Public Education Committee: The committee will hear 40 bills this week, a first batch in subcommittee on Monday and the rest on Tuesday morning. Of greatest concern are bills by Reps. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) and Harold Dutton (D-Houston). Bohac’s HB 2924 would water down standards for educator-preparation programs and thus for the teaching profession. Dutton’s HB 2941 is a priority of Texas Aspires (formerly known as Texans for Education Reform), serving to bolster the education commissioner’s power to require use of unproven metrics like value-added in teacher appraisal and to curb local freedom to vary from the state model.

On the plus side in the House Public Education Committee is HB 3692 by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont), which would outlaw use of students’ scores on state assessments in teacher appraisal. Also a plus would be HB 1867 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), which would require districts of innovation (DOI) to abide by state requirements for teacher certification and assignments. Another DOI reform bill, HB 3318 by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Terrell), requires more community access to information about DOI plans.

–Senate Education Committee: On Tuesday the committee hears the Senate companion to the Bohac bill, noted above, lowering standards for educator preparation. The Senate bill is SB 1278 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). On the positive side of the ledger is SB 196 by Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), which would require parental notification when a school lacks full-time nurse, counselor, or librarian staffing.

–Senate Transportation Committee:  On Wednesday this committee hears SB 693 by Garcia requiring three-point seat belts on newly purchased school buses.

–House Select Committee on State/Federal Power and Responsibility:  On Thursday this committee hears a proposed resolution calling on Congress to pass the Social Security Fairness Act repealing the unfair Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision. The resolution is HCR 101 by Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi).

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