Shifting Momentum at the State Capitol

Some lessons are emerging from the first, Senate-dominated week of the current special legislative session at the state Capitol. Number one:  Strong-arm tactics will only get the governor and lieutenant governor so far. Number two: Counter-pressure works, especially coming from rank-and-file education employees and retirees and friends of public education.

Certainly Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been able to whip most of his and the governor’s favored bills through the Senate over which he rules with a heavy hand. After a marathon Senate session Tuesday, all but a few of their bills had cleared the Senate floor. Bills en route to the House included a voucher bill (SB 2), a bill to discriminate against transgender schoolchildren (SB 3), and the attack on payroll deduction (SB 7) that Patrick has been trying in vain to pass since 2015.

But these bills now face an icy reception in the Texas House, where Patrick’s strong-arm tactics don’t reach and the governor’s attempts at bullying may be backfiring. And the surface story of Patrick’s success at getting his bills through the Senate misses important aspects of what’s going on at the Capitol this summer.

Two examples illustrate the point. One of the bills passed Tuesday concerning teacher pay and TRS health-care benefits for retirees was significantly reshaped for the better by pressure from active and retired teachers and other school employees. That bill, SB 19, initially included a phantom teacher pay raise without a funding source that wouldn’t even take effect until three years from now, at best, and had all the earmarks of an unfunded mandate that would come out of local school budgets at the expense of educators and students. But an outcry from school employees forced Patrick to back off on that bad idea, and the final Senate version of the bill contained only measures actually funded by the state, albeit only for the short term:  teacher bonuses of $600 to $1,000 due in September 2018 and reductions in health-care cost increases imposed on retirees under the TRS-Care program for plan years 2018 and 2019.

We are still pushing for the House to turn the TRS-Care relief into something permanent rather than temporary and to pass a real, funded pay raise. But the lesson here is that counter-pressure can indeed reshape legislation–especially when legislators hear day in and day out from the folks back home.

While we’re talking about TRS-Care and a teacher raise, the news on this front from the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday was very good. HB 24 by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) would give teachers and full-time counselors, librarians, and school nurses a real $1,000 ongoing annual raise, paid for from the Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund), the reserve fund that is bulging at the seams with more than $10 billion. Texas AFT legislative spokesman Eric Hartman testified that “this is what a real teacher pay raise looks like,” in pointed contrast to the unfunded Dan Patrick proposal that the Senate abandoned later in the day. Texas AFT’s testimony also encouraged the House to look at broader benefit proposals to improve health-care funding for all active school employees–as strongly urged by committee member Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), a leader in the House on school-funding issues.

The Appropriations Committee also gave a warm reception to a batch of  proposals endorsed by Texas AFT to give retired school employees a better deal and reduce their sharply rising health-care costs. We backed HB 76 by Darby and HB 20 by Ashby as well as HB 151 by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Terrell), which would spend $1 billion over four years to ease the burden on retirees. All three bills would sensibly draw from the Economic Stabilization Fund, and indeed could be paid for just out of the projected growth in that fund, let alone the $10 billion already in it. Let’s put it this way:  The discussion of pay and benefits in the House is off to a very good start.

The second big case in point of the value of counter-pressure comes on the issue of payroll deduction. To be sure, Dan Patrick got his bill through the Senate. But that’s nothing new. What’s noteworthy is that he could not even keep all senators from his own party on board this time, as Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) voted no along with the entire Democratic caucus. Nichols showed some moxie and deserves credit for listening to the folks back home–especially educators and correctional officers–who made clear that this legislation does no public good and wrongly infringes on the freedom of public employees to spend their hard-earned paychecks as they choose without employer interference and at no cost to taxpayers. The stout resistance mounted by the opponents of this attack on employee freedom in the Senate also will help bolster resistance to SB 7 in the House, where attacks of this sort have died in the past.

With Senate action on most of the big issues of the special session now done, the momentum now shifts to the House. Look for more on the House outlook in upcoming Hotlines–along with action alerts as needed.