State Budget Hearings Begin with House Pushing for Higher Funding than Senate

The Senate Finance Committee, which will write the Senate version of the state budget for fiscal years 2018-19, began formal hearings Monday with an overview of a first draft of Senate Bill 1 that would provide $8 billion less for public services than the House proposes. The Senate budget draft would provide $2.2 billion less in general-purpose revenue for public education than the House version. Neither version comes close to the inflation-adjusted increase in education funding that Texas students need, and Texas AFT will outline what’s really needed in testimony before the Finance Committee on January 24. But the starting point of the House bill is distinctly preferable to the Senate document.

Senate Finance Committee chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, named two subgroups of the Finance panel that will work on issues of crucial importance to education employees and students:  school finance and health-care costs. Nelson’s workgroup on school finance includes these senators:

Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chair
Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston
Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury
Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills
Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen
Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo
Royce West, D-Dallas

Nelson exhorted these senators to start from a “clean slate” in developing a redesigned system of school finance. Sen. Taylor struck a fairly cautious note, however, commenting that the project could extend through the interim between the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions.

The workgroup on health-care costs has this roster:

Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chair
Joan Huffman, R-Houston
Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham
Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville
Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio
Kirk Watson, D-Austin
John Whitmire, D-Houston

The health-care workgroup will address “ways to contain the rising cost of health care in Medicaid, the Teacher Retirement System, the Employees Retirement System and correctional managed care,” per Nelson’s directions. From Sen. Nelson’s perspective, the problem is that these costs, if nothing changes, “will continue to consume more of the budget and crowd out our ability to meet other needs.” Texas AFT sees the problem a bit differently. If nothing changes, the rising cost of health coverage will continue to be shifted by the state onto the backs of employees and their school districts and make it much harder to recruit and retain the quality educators our students deserve. Texas AFT will be pushing for an increased state contribution for school employees’ health coverage and resisting any cuts that may be proposed in state funding or health benefits.

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