No Senate Vote on 2018-2019 School Funding; House Vote Pending on Long-Term School-Finance Study; TRS-Care Issue Being Negotiated

The Texas Senate keeps delaying a vote on increased school funding for 2018-2019 and now has recessed until 4 p.m. Monday. It may be just as well that they are still working out their stance, because what’s on the table so far in the Senate is very little. The $311 million senators have included thus far in their version of HB 21 provides relief for smaller districts, but for urban districts with 25,000 students and up it apparently provides little or nothing. The Senate substitute also is marred by an unjustified, unprecedented, preferential allocation of $60 million in facilities funding for charter schools, without first making  up for years of neglect of facilities needs of traditional school districts.

While the Senate vote on HB 21 remains pending, so does the House vote to consider the Senate’s SB 16, a bill to create an interim study commission to recommend a new school-finance system before the 2019 legislative session. The House has suggested it could accept this study of long-term solutions only if it is in addition to, not instead of, the $1.8 billion in the House version of HB 21 for increased school funding for the coming two school years. The House has now postponed consideration of SB 16 until Monday afternoon. Texas AFT supports the House stance tying the long-term study commission bill to passage of a healthy increase in school funding in the meanwhile.

Senate Education Committee chair Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) reiterated today that the Senate may be willing to up its offer on school funding, by reinstating House-proposed aid for bilingual education and for students with dyslexia, and even possibly including autism grants that were in another House bill. The hope is that if these positive moves occur–and if the Senate does not try to insert vouchers or other unacceptable amendments–the two sides can still come to an agreement on HB 21 before time runs out on the special session August 16.

The other big difference between the two approaches concerns how to pay for the funding increases. The Senate wants to use dollars generated by temporarily reducing state health-care payments under the Medicaid program; the House wants to marshal the money by just delaying a $1.9-billion payment to school districts for a few days from August 2019 to September 2019.

Health-care cost relief for TRS retirees comes down to what happens with SB 19, and on this issue the two chambers are much closer to a deal than on school finance. The House Appropriations  Committee has removed the Senate’s one-time teacher-bonus provision from the bill, so it deals only with TRS-Care. Both the House and Senate want to spend $212 million to reduce scheduled increases in deductibles and premiums that are slated to hit retirees hard in January 2018 unless modified. But the Senate, as with school funding, wants to use the Medicaid deferral as the method of financing health-care cost relief, while the House says the dollars should come out of the Economic Stabilization Fund (a/k/a the Rainy Day Fund).

Considering that the ESF reserve is already above $10 billion and projected to rise to nearly $12 billion by the end of 2019, the House proposal is sensible and preferable. Indeed, the real question should be why the ESF reserve cannot be used to give even greater health-care cost relief to retirees and to fund the House proposal for increased 2018-2019 school aid–or something even better.