Legislative Update: Week of July 5, 2021

Texas AFT retirees at the Capitol testifying in favor of a 13th check. Pictured, from left, are Lydia Lydia Carrillo-Valdez, Ralph Cruzan, Becky Ovalle, Rita Runnels, and Phyllis Ruffins.

Gov. Greg Abbott finally published his legislative agenda Wednesday for the special session of the Legislature that kicked off Thursday. On the public education front, we’ll likely see:

  • A 13th check for Teacher Retirement System of Texas retirees.
  • Another look at “critical race theory” legislation.
  • another attempt to pass a law regarding transgender students’ participation in sports. 
  • Possible legislation requiring “appropriate education” on “dating violence, domestic violence, and child abuse, but that recognizes the right of parents to opt their children out of the instruction.”

The governor has the sole ability to call special sessions—which are limited to 30 days—and to decide which issue areas or specific legislation can be addressed.

13th check bills clear committees

Texas AFT wholeheartedly supports a 13th TRS pension check for retirees—even though what’s truly needed is a continuing cost-of-living increase (COLA) for monthly pension payments. While TRS is in a financial position to make a COLA possible, only the Legislature can authorize those increases, and legislators in the regular session were hesitant to take that step until 2023. Many lawmakers, however, have supported a supplemental payment for the year, which was evident in this exchange between Rep. Rafael Anchía and lead budget writer Rep. Greg Bonnen during the regular session.

Two bills—SB 7 and HB 85—providing that 13th check quickly passed through the House Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee and the Senate Finance Committee on Friday. Both would provide an additional monthly payment to TRS retiree members but capped at $2,400. Texas AFT retiree members testified in support of  both bills. Those testifying included Lydia Carrillo-Valdez, Ralph Cruzan, Becky Ovalle, Rita Runnels, and Phyllis Ruffins. Our members told personal stories of how rising healthcare costs and other living expenses mean that some educators have to come out of retirement and return to work just to make ends meet. 

The only key difference between the two bills is that SB 7 gives TRS the discretion on whether to actually give the payments, depending on how much the Legislature appropriates in funding to pay for them. (However, the Legislature has plenty of money to cover that $700 million price tag. See below.) You can send an online letter to your state senator urging passage here.

Comptroller gives a boost to Legislature’s piggy bank with new revenue estimate

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar released a rosy state revenue estimate last week that shows a whopping $7.85 billion more than anticipated for the state budget. The Economic Stabilization Fund (The Rainy Day Fund) is expected to reach $12 billion by 2022-2023.

Surging sales tax collections, increased consumer spending, and higher oil prices fueled the new revenue, Hegar said. While the news seems to signal a thriving Texas economy, recall that mandated cuts to state agencies last year also created savings that resulted in the budget balance shooting up—so, many state programs and services are still operating on a reduced level. Legislators also are eyeing spending in the special session for “border security,” property tax reductions, foster care, and a 13th check for TRS retirees, so there will be plenty of competing interests for the money. 

Legislation on ‘critical race theory’ back on the table

Texas AFT has vigorously opposed any legislation attempting to stifle the freedom of teachers on curriculum regarding race. The bill that passed in the regular session, HB 3979, is just that, an attempt to politicize race—under the moniker of “critical race theory”—and paint an inaccurate picture of how our professional teachers instruct on “controversial” topics in the classroom. You can read more on that bill here. The governor signed the bill into law, but put it on a special session call because he said “more” needed to be done on the issue.

Three bills have been filed on the issue, with one high profile bill—SB 3—aiming to strip out much of the required curriculum on the history of people of color and women that Democrats added with amendments to HB 3979 in the regular session. It’s too early to tell if the new bill will face the same flurry of amendments and floor battles as its predecessor in the regular session, but Texas AFT will be ready to fight any attempts to further stifle academic freedom in discussing “controversial” topics and issues around race.

Voter suppression bills advance

Governor Abbott included “legislation strengthening the integrity of elections in Texas” on his call for the first special session of the 87th legislature. Texas AFT opposes all efforts to undermine voting rights and was against similar efforts during the regular session that would have limited drive-through voting, made vote-by-mail harder for people with disabilities, and made elections easier to overturn due to specious fraud claims. On Saturday, we opposed HB 3 by Murr and SB 1 by Hughes, which are very similar to the omnibus voter suppression bills filed during the regular session. Both bills were heard in committee this past weekend in marathon hearings with hundreds of Texans testifying against the bills. They passed out of both committees on party line votes. 

In coalition with our allies, we urge you to join Texans from across the Lone Star State for Voting Rights Advocacy Day Tuesday at the Texas Capitol in Austin. During this special legislative session, we need to stand up for voting rights and defend our democracy from the latest attacks. Texas lawmakers need to hear from you. Our allies will join together in a day of advocacy that will include training and opportunities to advocate for pro-voter, pro-democracy reforms and voice your fierce opposition to anti-voting bills that try to silence our educator voices, weaken our elections, and undermine our democracy. 

Transgender sports legislation that failed in the spring is back again
Last regular session, Texas AFT also opposed a bill that would discriminate against transgender students by forcing them to “compete in sports associated with their biological sex as determined at or near birth.” The bill died after missing a deadline for House passage, but the governor is intent on trying to pass similar legislation. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo is set to testify against the new versions of the bill, SB 2 and SB 32, both by Sen. Perry, during the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Hearing on Monday. SB 2 states students attending public schools and public institution of higher eduation must participate in a sport according to their biological sex, and SB 32 would establish the same rules only for public school students. The hearing begins on adjournment of the Senate floor, which starts at 10 a.m. today. Texas AFT is still monitoring the House to see when they might take up this issue.  

Other special session legislation

Also included in the special session agenda are bills filed around the following issues authorized by the governor’s call:

  • Bail reform
  • Border security
  • Issues around “censorship” on social media
  • Legislation addressing the governor’s veto of the legislative operations budget
  • Prohibitions on providing abortion-inducing drugs by mail and reporting on abortions
  • Property tax reductions
  • Examination of safety issues in foster care
  • Addressing cyber security threats to the state