Texas House elects new speaker who pledges to prioritize public education

Newly-elected Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan

The Texas House and Senate both convened this week for the start of the 87th Legislature, which runs through May 31. The House elected a new speaker, Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), and passed its rules before adjourning until January 26.

The Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), also passed rules this week, including a controversial provision that allows a bill to come to the floor for debate with the approval of just 18 senators. (For many years the Senate operated on 21 votes needed, until it was lowered to 19 by Patrick in 2015.) As expected, the rule change passed on party lines, with all Democrats voting no. The threshold originally was designed to protect the minority party or viewpoint from being excluded from input on bills. But after the Democrats picked up another Senate seat this year, Patrick and his Republican colleagues lowered that threshold again to give Republicans a more unimpeded path to passing their priority bills.

In Phelan’s acceptance speech before the House, he pledged to make public education a priority. “We’re gonna do our best to make sure our commitment to public education is strong,” Phelan told KXAN news. “When you go look at your personal budget …whatever I spend the most money on is the most important thing,” Phelan said. “And the most important thing here in Texas is education.”

The state will still grapple with a $1 billion budget deficit from the current biennium announced Monday by Comptroller Glenn Hegar in his Biennial Revenue Estimate. Texas AFT will work to ensure those pledging to support our schools live up to their words, especially as the Comptroller predicts the state will have less money to spend as compared with last Session. 

Unfortunately, many of the pandemic-related rules passed this week have the potential to stifle public participation. Despite advocacy from Texas AFT and other groups, the rules did not outline a process for virtual public testimony by the public. Instead, plans are in the works for the public to submit testimony through a virtual “portal” in writing—something that, while convenient, doesn’t carry the weight of in-person testimony by members of the public. 

The rules make provisions for public, in-person, testimony in front of two members of a committee, with the rest of the lawmakers participating remotely. However, with Austin in the middle of a Stage 5 pandemic and continued reports of limited safety precautions at the Capitol building, Texas AFT has concerns about the safety and utility of in-person witnesses testifying before a nearly empty dais.