Week in Review and Week Ahead at the State Capitol

The Texas House has begun moving toward a vote to use the Economic Stabilization Fund (also known as the Rainy Day Fund) to cover shortfalls in state funding for key state services. This welcome first step was taken today with filing of HB 2, the supplemental appropriations bill by budget committee chair John Zerwas (R-Richmond), which would tap the ESF for around $1.4 billion to cover shortfalls in the current biennium, especially for Medicaid, child protective services, mental health, and prison health care. Using this money for the current budget would free up general revenue for the 2018-2019 budget cycle, and it would leave more than $10 billion available in the ESF that the House could still tap for the coming two years. House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday that a failure to use the ESF this session would cut off needed funding for higher education and for health care for retired teachers and other education employees.

There was good news this week on the voucher front. House Public Education chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) announced that bills to divert funding from public schools to private schools are probably already dead in the House. In a school-finance hearing of his committee on Tuesday, he made it clear that the lack of accountability for the use of public funds in private schools is in his view a fatal flaw. Meanwhile no Senate hearing on vouchers has been scheduled yet, though it is possible the Senate Education Committee could set up a voucher hearing as early as March 9.

Other upcoming committee meetings of note:

–On Monday, the House Business and Industry Committee hears a bill to remove procedural obstacles to winning back pay in cases of pay discrimination. This bill to ensure equal pay for equal work is HB 228 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston).

–The House Appropriations Committee subpanel on education will resume its deliberations Monday on funding levels for various education programs from pre-K through higher education.

–On Tuesday, the House Public Education ¬†holds a hearing on a spate of school-finance bills. Chairman Huberty has served notice that he will be coming up with a new bill on school finance that will become the main vehicle for House action on this critical issue. In the House version of the 2018-2019 budget, an increase of $1.5 billion in formula aid to school districts hinges on whether the Legislature can pass a school-finance bill addressing major outstanding problems in school funding–the main one being the lack of sufficient state funding that leads to excessive reliance on local property taxes.

–On Tuesday morning the Senate State Affairs takes up the “bathroom” bill, SB 6 by Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), which embodies Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s notion that the state should dictate to local governments like school districts what their policies should be on the use of bathrooms by transgender individuals. A surprisingly broad coalition of opponents has emerged against this bill, including powerful business interests that see it as an emblem of intolerance that would make Texas a less attractive place to do business, even leading to business boycotts of the state. It is not clear who besides Lt. Gov. Patrick considers this bill a priority agenda item for the Legislature.

–On Wednesday committees on higher education meet in both House and Senate. One bill of interest is HB 1241 by Helen Giddings (D-Dallas), which appears to make state ¬†outcome-based funding for colleges and universities contingent on first meeting the state’s obligation to provide full formula funding.

–On Thursday the Senate Nominations Committee is expected to take up the controversial appointment of Josh McGee as head of the State Pension Review Board. McGee is affiliated with the Houston-based Arnold Foundation, an entity that has led attacks on defined-benefit pensions in other states.