Legislative Update: House skirts payroll deduction issue, suicide prevention bill passes, Senate resurrects bad education bills

Much attention was focused on the Texas House last night, where legislators faced a midnight deadline for most Senate bills to pass the House on second reading. On the calendar for consideration last night were pieces of high-profile legislation including an ethics reform bill declared an emergency issue by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a controversial college campus carry bill, an agency sunset bill rumored to be a vehicle for an amendment widely viewed as discriminatory, and a divisive abortion-related bill. The House activity garnered most of the attention but resulted in very little impact on educators; meanwhile, the Senate took a number of dismaying actions around the midnight hour that are of real concern to education stakeholders. One of few positive highlights to report today is the advancement of an ATPE-supported bill to try to deter teen suicides.

House activity: ethics reform, campus carry, and retribution

The ethics bill, SB 19 by Sen. Van Taylor (R) was sponsored in the House by Rep. Byron Cook (R). Educator groups watched the House floor debate closely last night after rumors surfaced that legislators might try to add a payroll deduction ban from Sen. Joan Huffman’s (R) SB 1968 onto the bill. No such amendment was proposed last night, but the lengthy and often boisterous debate centered on major differences between the two chambers’ versions of SB 19. The Senate’s version of the bill focused on conflicts of interest, imposing a two-year cooling off period before lawmakers can become employed as registered lobbyists, and incorporating a few odd provisions such as an amendment by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) to require all candidates for public office to undergo drug testing. The House State Affairs Committee, chaired by Cook, replaced SB 19 with its own version, stripping out the drug-testing mandate, aiming to protect lawmakers against secret video recordings, and requiring disclosure of so-called “dark money” contributions, which the Senate opposes. The most vocal opponents of dark money regulations have been conservative groups, typically aligned with the Tea Party, who rely on secret contributions to non-profit organizations that aren’t required to report their political spending and activities to the Texas Ethics Commission in the same manner as highly regulated political action committees. Cook and his colleagues in the House were unsympathetic to dark money groups such as Empower Texans. They voted 96 to 48 to accept the House version of SB 19 with its dark money regulations last night, infuriating the bill’s author and the Senate leadership. (An earlier vote on an amendment by Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) that would have reverted SB 19 back to its Senate incarnation with no dark money reporting requirements failed convincingly with only 33 representatives in support.) Today, the House approved the bill on third reading by a vote of 94 to 49 after adding one more amendment.

Last night’s ethics debate lasted several hours, to the dismay of conservatives in the House who were anxious to take up bills dealing with hot-button issues of gun rights and abortion. Sen. Brian Birdwell’s (R) SB 11 to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry guns on college campuses, later passed in a compromise format, and time ran out before the House had a chance to debate the abortion bill. With conservatives lamenting the demise of politically charged Senate bills in the more moderate House and Democrats fuming over last-minute attempts to pass legislation unfavorable to gay and lesbian couples, tempers are certainly flaring at the capitol. Debates have been punctuated by name-calling and shouting, with retribution appearing to be the order of the day. A manifestation of the tension today has been a handful of legislators knocking others’ seemingly innocuous bills off the House’s “local and consent” calendar.

Senate activity: ed prep, school turnaround, and supplemental funding

While many were tuned into the House last night, the Senate was quietly and quickly passing bills of major significance to public education. First, the Senate took up HB 2205 by Rep. Myra Crownover (R), an educator preparation and certification bill being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kel Seliger (R). The Senate approved a version of the bill last night that incorporates language from Sen. Seliger’s dead bill, SB 892, that lowers the statutory minimum GPA for admission to an educator preparation program from 2.75 to 2.5. The Senate initially accepted a floor amendment by Sen. Jose Menendez (D) filed at our request to restore the 2.75 GPA language that is in current law. After taking a break to confer with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate stripped off the Menendez language, based largely on the lieutenant governor’s sudden objections to keeping the GPA at 2.75. (Ironically, Patrick was the same person who, as a senator in 2013, had sponsored the bill that raised the minimum GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 and even wrote a letter to state board members encouraging them to raise the educator preparation program admission standards in rule). With Lt. Gov. Patrick’s change of heart, HB 2205 as approved by the Senate last night now represents a watering down of the criteria for entering the education profession. One positive change in the new Senate version, however, deals with training provided by alternative certification providers. HB 2205 now requires 30 hours (up from 15) of field-based experience that must be delivered in a classroom setting (not online) before a candidate may be hired as a teacher of record. A floor amendment by Sen. Seliger stripped out Rep. Ina Minjarez’s (D) House floor amendment creating a school turnaround specialist endorsement for principals and also gives the commissioner of education, rather than the State Board for Educator Certification, the ability set passing standards or cut scores for certification exams. The Senate also added two floor amendments by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R) that resurrected a pair of his dead bills. One amendment added his SB 1003 making it easier for school districts to issue teaching permits to non-certified teachers. The other amendment latches Bettencourt’s SB 1222 onto the bill, giving the commissioner of education power to issue subpoenas when investigating educators for possible misconduct.

Next, the Senate took up HB 1842 by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) right at midnight and loaded it up with floor amendments, many representing otherwise dead bills this session. Sen. Larry Taylor (R), who sponsored the school sanctions bill in the Senate, first added to it language from his own SB 1241 calling for the creation of deregulated “innovation zone” schools. Next, Sen. Royce West (R) added his “Opportunity School District” language to the bill. Opportunity School Districts are largely deregulated statewide school districts comprised of certain low-performing schools and typically managed by an appointed superintendent. They’ve been previously called “Achievement School Districts” and are now being referred to, somewhat regrettably, as “School Turnaround Districts” (STDs). Sen. Bettencourt also successfully moved to add to HB 1842 the language from Sen. Larry Taylor’s (R) SB 1897, which provides for the expansion of charter and virtual schools. ATPE has opposed all the bills that gave rise to these three amendments now incorporated into HB 1842 – all of which were also being pushed by the well-funded Texans for Education Reform this session. Chairman Taylor did accept a few favorable floor amendments to HB 1842 filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D). The House, of course, will still have an opportunity to decide whether to accept the Senate’s dramatic changes to the bill.

Earlier in the evening, the Senate unanimously passed HB 2 by Rep. John Otto (R), sponsored in the upper chamber by Sen. Jane Nelson (R). The supplemental appropriations bill includes much-needed funding in the amount of $768 million to help cover costs of TRS-Care insurance for retirees over the next two years.

For all three of these bills passed by the Senate yesterday, they will return to the House next for either motions to concur in the Senate amendments to the bills or decisions to send HB 2205, HB 1842, and HB 2 to conference committees of senators and representatives who will attempt to work out a compromise.

Update on ATPE’s suicide prevention legislation

HB 2186 by Rep. Byron Cook (R) is a step closer to becoming law after being approved by the full Senate today. It was passed unanimously on the Senate’s local and uncontested calendar this afternoon. As we’ve reported previously, the ATPE-requested bill aims to help educators become trained to spot and react to the warning signs of suicide among students. The bill honors the memory of suicide victim Jonathan Childers, who was the teenage son of ATPE member Kevin Childers. Read more about the Childers family in the latest issue of ATPE News.

Stay tuned for updates as the legislative battles continue.

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