Category Archives: 85th Legislature

From The Texas Tribune: Analysis: A window into who Texas legislators’ favorite employees are

Lawmakers want to stop deducting dues for union and non-union employee associations from state paychecks — but only for the employees they disagree with. 

Tribune_7C2A4971_jpg_800x1000_q100

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the chairwoman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, listened to testimony during a Sept. 14, 2016, committee meeting. Photo: Marjorie Kamys Cotera

The union dues bill is a great example of the difference between an ideological piece of legislation and a case of lawmakers just picking favorites.

Texas allows state and government employees to deduct the dues for their unions and employee association from their paychecks — an automatic payment that improves collections and retains members for those groups and that saves the employees the trouble of writing checks or sending payments every month. It doesn’t cost the state anything; the groups that benefit pay the processing costs.

The governor had a line about stopping the practice in his state of the state speech a few weeks ago. The lieutenant governor put Sen. Joan Huffman’s legislation against the practice on his list of priorities, giving it a low number — Senate Bill 13 — and a fast ride through the process. The Senate State Affairs Committee voted it out on Thursday. The full Senate will get the next look. Two years ago, similar legislation passed in the Senate and then died in the House at the end of session.

Republicans like the bill, and it’s not hard to figure out why. It zings teacher and trade unions that often favor Democrats, and it’s a crowd-pleaser for conservative audiences. Groups like the Texas branch of the National Federation of Independent Business favor the legislation, too, saying the dues checkoff enables their legislative foes and has no public purpose.

Legislators are selective in their scorn: Some public employees are easier to kick than others.

But the bill wouldn’t end the practice of allowing public employees to pay their dues automatically through a payroll deduction — a detail that undermines the argument that this is about unburdening state and local payroll clerks.

Like the legislation that failed two years ago, Huffman’s bill would allow police, fire and emergency responders to keep their payroll deductions in place. Teachers would be cut out, as would prison guards, social workers and other public employees.

Legislators are selective in their scorn: Some public employees are easier to kick than others.

Lawmakers who don’t think the state ought to be collecting dues for employee unions and associations would be voting to end the practice. On the other hand, if you just want to bust unions and associations that tend to vote for the other party, outlaw it for them but leave your own supporters alone.

It’s a modern spoils bill, rewarding public employees thought to support the people in charge and punishing dissenters.

State law already prevents payroll deductions for political purposes — the union and non-union associations collecting these dues can’t use that money for the political action committees or for other political expenses. But the groups frankly admit that without the automatic payments, they’d lose some members. They like painless payments for the same reason streaming media companies and other subscription services like them: If people don’t have to write checks or consider payments every month, they’re more like to remain enrolled.

The debate is coming earlier in the session this time around, increasing chances that lawmakers will hear a full argument on the merits before the end of the session.

The exceptions could be the most interesting part of the fight. Instead of a straight-up argument over whether and when public workers should be allowed to sign up for payroll deductions for this or that, this is shaping up as a debate over which public workers should have the privilege — a debate over good eggs and bad eggs.

All lawmakers like first responders and want to be seen as supporting them. They all love education but some of them don’t like teachers, especially when they form groups that lobby on their behalf. Lots of lawmakers have remarkably low regard for their own employees, the workforce they deride as the bureaucracy.

When the session is over, voters will have a good look at how those groups rank with their lawmakers. Even if the dues bill passes, Texas will still have payroll deductions for union and non-union employee groups — but only for the groups that have found favor with or that are feared by the people in elected state office.

This isn’t about the paychecks. It’s about the politics.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/02/17/analysis-window-who-texas-legislators-favorite-employees-are/.
Texas Tribune mission statement
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Senate committee hears from dozens opposed to payroll deduction bill

On Monday, Feb. 13, the Senate Committee on State Affairs, chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), conducted a public hearing on Senate Bill (SB) 13, Huffman’s own bill to eliminate the rights of some public employees to use payroll deduction for voluntary association dues. Dozens of ATPE members traveled to Austin to attend the hearing. Among the many witnesses who testified against SB 13 were ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey, State President Julleen Bottoms, State Vice President Carl Garner, State Secretary Byron Hildebrand, and State Treasurer Tonja Grey.

FU5A8792_SB13hearing-crop1

Early in the hearing, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) questioned the bill’s author on why she chose to file a bill that would prohibit payroll deduction by some public employees (such as educators, correctional officers, and CPS workers) while exempting fire, police, and EMS employees from the prohibition. ”I just think it’s problematic to say this group of people does it this way and this group of people does it that way,” Sen. Estes said, noting that he would prefer to see a bill without an exception for first responders that would apply equally to all public employees. “Why?” Estes asked the bill’s author about the discriminatory impact of her bill.

 

In response to the questions from Estes and her other fellow senators, Chairwoman Huffman explained that she was comfortable excluding law enforcement and emergency personnel from the bill because they “serve the community… with great honor and distinction.” Huffman added that groups representing first responders don’t interfere with “business issues,” which was a complaint raised by a pair of business lobbyists who testified against SB 13.

It is not clear what type of “business interference” the supporters of this bill believe ATPE has been guilty of organizing. The examples cited by a representative of the National Federal of Independent Business (NFIB) were federal minimum wage and equal pay laws that she claimed unions were opposing nationally. ATPE has not taken a position on any such legislation in Washington, and ATPE’s Godsey pointed out in his testimony that our organization has been supportive of business. “We love small business,” Godsey emphasized to the committee. “We have never spent one dime lobbying against small business.”

FU5A8745_SB13hearing

Sens. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) asked a number of questions during the hearing about why this bill was needed. They illustrated, for example, that no school board members or superintendents have complained about the current law requiring districts to let educators deduct association dues from their paychecks. Several of the teachers who testified during Monday’s hearing pointed out that their school leaders were supportive of leaving the current law alone and letting school employees continue the practice of using payroll deduction for their association dues. ATPE State President Bottoms, for example, noted that her own superintendent had even traveled to Austin Monday to support her appearance at the SB 13 hearing.

Although not a member of the committee, Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) also sat in on the hearing and  asked a number of questions about why the bill targets certain associations while allowing payroll deductions for other purposes, such as insurance premiums and taxes. ATPE appreciates the support of those senators from both parties who have taken issue with SB 13, principally for the discriminatory message that it sends to hardworking educators and the fact that the bill is wholly unnecessary. It solves no identified problems and does not produce any cost savings to the state. Interestingly, Chairwoman Huffman conceded during her opening remarks about SB 13 that there are no taxpayer costs associated with public employees using payroll deduction for their association dues. In admitting this, Huffman openly contradicted recent claims by both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott that this legislation would prevent “taxpayer resources” from being used to collect union dues.

While the committee heard testimony from numerous ATPE members and other educators on Monday, members of the law enforcement community were also on hand to express opposition to SB 13. Even though law enforcement officials are currently exempted from Huffman’s bill, they nevertheless urged lawmakers not to discriminate against teachers and expressed disappointment that the Senate was even hearing such a bill as SB 13. ATPE sincerely appreciates the support of police, fire, and EMS employee associations to defeat this unnecessary bill.

Click here to watch archived video of the hearing. Sen. Huffman’s introduction of SB 13 begins at the 13:45 mark during the broadcast. The testimony on this bill begins at 1:11:28 during the broadcast. Also, visit ATPE’s Facebook page for video highlights and links to news reports about the hearing. ATPE members are urged to continue calling and writing to their legislators about SB 13 and its House counterpart, House Bill 510. For additional resources on communicating with lawmakers, check out ATPE’s Advocacy Central.

Hearing

Speaker Straus announces House committee assignments

Today, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) shared his much-anticipated announcement of committee assignments for the 85th Legislature.

Dan_Huberty_HD127_2016pic

Rep. Dan Huberty

Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) will chair the House Public Education Committee, a post vacated by the retirement of former chairman Jimmie Don Aycock. Huberty has served on the committee since being first elected in 2011, and he previously served as a school board member for Humble ISD. ATPE looks forward to working with Chairman Huberty on education issues and appreciates the experience he brings to the position. We’re also looking forward to having Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) in the vice chairman’s role this session.

The House Appropriations Committee will be chaired by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Simonton). This is yet another leadership position that opened up with the retirement of former chairman John Otto. The committee oversees state funding issues, including the public education budget.

Chairman Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) will continue to oversee the House Committee on State Affairs, which is likely to hear anti-teacher bills to eliminate payroll deduction for educators this session. Another chair held over is Chairman Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), who will lead the House Calendars Committee that plays an important role in getting bills through the legislative process. Chairman Dan Flynn (R-Van) continues in his role as chairman of the House Pensions Committee, overseeing many aspects of the Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

View the complete list of committee assignments here.

Dan Patrick’s voucher bill

Near the beginning of session before senators starting filing their bills, the lieutenant governor routinely reserves a block of the first fifteen to twenty bill numbers for high priorities. This year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reserved numbers one through thirty for his preferred bills. While Lt. Gov. Patrick cannot file bills himself, he works with various senators to carry what are unquestionably his priorities and marks them as such with one of his low bill numbers.

Vouchers have always been a top political priority for Lt. Gov. Patrick. This session, Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) is the state budget bill; SB 2 is the lieutenant governor’s tax relief bill; and third on the list, SB 3, is the lieutenant governor’s voucher bill.

SB 3 contains both an education savings account (ESA) and a tax credit scholarship. While each program funnels public tax dollars to private, non-transparent, and largely unaccountable education settings, making both programs clearly voucher programs, the mechanics of how they shift those dollars are separate and distinct. Here’s a more detailed look at each program contained in SB 3:

Dan Patrick’s ESA program:

The ESA program as proposed in SB 3 would apply to any child who either has been in the public school system during the preceding school year or has never been in the public school system but was born after September 1, 2012. It would give those children access to a bank account from which their parent or guardian can at their discretion pay for “educational expenditures” using a debit card. The amount that a child would receive under the program is dependent on two factors, household income and student disability. Here is an approximate breakdown based on a family of five (two parents, three kids):

  • A family with a household income over $105,118 would receive $5,510 for each eligible child.
  • A family with a household income under $105,118 would receive $6,888 for each eligible child.
  • A child who is eligible to participate in an ISD special education program or has a Section 504 designation would receive $8,266 regardless of household income.

The numbers above are based on a percentage of the average state and local public education funding a child receives in Texas, which is approximately $9,184*. That amount does not include federal funding; nor does it include additional weighted funding a student in the free or reduced price lunch program or a student identified as needing special education services may receive. For reference, the median household income in Texas is $55,653.

In every circumstance, a student receives less funding under an ESA program than the child would receive as a student of a public school.

As stated above in the ESA plan, parents may legally spend entitlement dollars on “educational expenditures.” These would include:

  • Tuition and fees at:
    • an accredited private school (ex. – IQA, Winston School);
    • a postsecondary educational institution; or
    • an online educational course or program (ex. – K-12 Inc.);
  • Textbooks or other instructional materials
    (Under an ESA neither the content nor quality of textbooks or instructional materials is publically vetted as they are for public schools. Here are examples of some texts that could be published using tax dollars under an ESA program for use in a non-public school: Sharia Law, Wicca, Young Earth Science.);
  • Curriculum
    (Much like textbooks, neither the quality nor content of curriculum is vetted under an ESA program. Here is an example of a commercially available curriculum program that could be paid for with public money under an ESA, although it would never be found in a public school - ATI (what is ATI);
  • Fees for classes or other educational services provided by a public school, if the classes or services do not qualify the child to be included in the school ’s average daily attendance;
  • Fees for services provided by a private tutor or teaching service (so vague it could cover almost anything);
  • Fees for educational therapies for a child with a disability;
  • Computer hardware and software and other technological devices, not to exceed in any year 10 percent of the total amount paid to the program participant’s account that year (ex. $551 – $826, multiplied by the number of children with a voucher, toward a new flat screen TV);
  • Fees for a nationally norm-referenced achievement test or examination, an assessment instrument adopted by the agency under Section 39.023, an advanced placement test or similar examination, or any examination related to college or university admission; and
  • Fees for the management of the participant’s account charged by a financial institution.

Swiping Credit CardSome parents will, of course, seek to cash in their student’s entitlement or directly spend the taxpayers’ money on unsanctioned purchases, such as rent, food, or even less scrupulous items. The primary means of deterring financial mismanagement on behalf the parent or guardian, assuming they get caught, is criminal prosecution. Having an incarcerated parent is not typically a precursor to improved academic performance.

The competing plan in SB 3 is a Tax Credit Scholarship.

Dan Patrick’s Tax Credit Scholarship program:

This part of SB 3 would allow an insurance company to redirect tax dollars out of state general revenue and into the coffers of a private vendor, which would then use those dollars to selectively grant scholarships for private schools. The bill also creates the bureaucratic framework under which the vendor would be awarded this lucrative administrative contract from the state.

Under SB 3, the Texas Comptroller would select a single 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity (such as a religious organization or private school operator) to serve as the states “Educational Assistance Organization” (EAO). In exchange for a 10% administrative fee retained on all the money it takes in, the EAO first receives dollars from insurance companies and issues those companies a receipt they can give to the comptroller for a dollar-for-dollar deduction on their taxes, up to half of their total tax bill. The EA then disperses those scholarships directly to private schools in accordance with SB 3. So for every $100 million the EAO takes in, it gets to keep $10 million in administrative fees right off the top. Additionally, the EAO can hold onto the money it collects for up to two years meaning that it could also quite easily invest that money (e.g. in a jumbo CD or other investment that carries virtually no risk) and collect yet another $1 -$3 million in profits off the earnings. All in all, this is a pretty good deal for the vendor that lands the contract.

The initial cap on the Tax Credit program in SB 3 is $100 million, but it would rise to approximately $260 million over the first 10 years and more than a billion dollars within 25 years. At that point, the EAO vendor would be able to draw approximately $130 million off the program annually.

Under the tax credit scholarship plan, the EAO vendor can make two different types of payments:

  • a scholarship payment of either 75 percent of average ADA ($6,888 for 2015-16) or 50 percent of average ADA ($4,592 for 2015-16); or
  • an educational expense assistance (EEA) payment of $500 (this amount increases by 5% each year).

An eligible student may be awarded both a scholarship payment and an educational assistance payment. In order to be eligible a student must meet the following eligibility requirements:

Income: The family’s income cannot exceed double the free or reduced lunch guidelines, which is $105,118 for our family of five.

The student must also:

  • be in foster care;
  • be in institutional care; or
  • have a parent on active duty in the military

Additionally, the student must:

  • have attended public school the preceding year;
  • have never attended public school, but be starting school in Texas for the first time (this could be a kindergarten student, first grader, or out of state/country student); or
  • be the sibling of an eligible student. (This would make students who had been attending a private school but who have a sibling who is eligible under the former bullets also eligible.)

Using 2015-16 numbers, a private school could be awarded a scholarship of $4,592 plus $500 in EEA money for a student from a family of five with an income between $78,839 and $105,118. A private school could be awarded a scholarship of $6,888 plus $500 in EEA money for a student from a family of five earning less than $78,839. Again for reference, the median household income in Texas is $55,653. A public school could be awarded $500 in EEA money for a student from a family earning less than $105,118. However there is no requirement, or even encouragement, in SB 3 to award any money to public school students.

Unlike SB 3′s ESA plan, these tax credit scholarships, don’t go to parents, but rather they go directly from the private EAO to the private school(s). This vendor preference and enhanced level of control have made this the voucher of choice for the Catholic Dioceses of Texas and its network of private religious schools, as well as for the Private School Association of Texas.

What if the Legislature were to pass both provisions of this bill?

NO VOUCHERS

If both of Gov. Patrick’s vouchers were to come to fruition under the current language of SB 3, many students would be eligible to double dip from both programs.

In any scenario, these vouchers are a reckless choice for the 85th legislature to pursue.

* There are many ways to calculate average state and local funding which result in variations in the total.

The latest on the misguided fight over educators’ payroll deduction

As ATPE has been reporting on Teach the Vote and atpe.org, two bills have been filed this session aimed at preventing educators from using payroll deduction for their association dues. They are House Bill 510 by Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) and Senate Bill 13 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). The legislation to ban payroll deduction has been declared a legislative priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). Dubbed an effort to keep the government from collecting “union dues,” these politically motivated bills actually have a greater impact on non-union professional entities such as ATPE. That’s why saving payroll deduction while educating lawmakers about the ugly political motives behind these bills is an ATPE legislative priority for 2017.

ATPE members should be familiar by now with the national movement to ban the use of payroll deduction by public employees. A controversial bill to keep school employees from using payroll deduction for their association dues, while allowing police, fire, and EMS workers to continue to payroll deduct their union dues, passed the Texas Senate in 2015 but never made it out of a House committee. This week, that same committee – the House Committee on State Affairs –shared its 2016 interim report, which includes a section on “union dues.” It’s an issue the committee was tasked with studying as an interim charge last year. The report notes that when the House State Affairs committee held a hearing on that bill last session, “Over 200 witnesses registered,” but only “17 were in support of the legislation.” The supporters of the 2015 bill included the same business groups who were invited to submit comments on the interim charge.

Excerpt from House State Affairs interim report

Excerpt from House State Affairs interim report

The House committee’s interim report summarizes arguments both for and against proposed legislation to ban payroll deduction, with supporters likening it to a taxpayer-funded “unfair political advantage” given to labor unions “that advocate against business in Texas” and “attack businesses that choose to remain union-free.” The report sums up arguments against the bills, including the facts that there is no cost to taxpayers since unions can be charged a fee for any dues collection-related costs and dues cannot be used for political contributions. The committee report concludes by acknowledging concerns about constitutionality of the legislation and notes that “one very essential question remains unanswered: What groups should be included in the bill, or, alternatively, what groups should be excluded from the bill?”

Knowing that a bill to ban payroll deductions would again be filed for consideration in 2017, the House State Affairs Committee’s ultimate recommendation on this interim charge was as follows: “The legislature should seek input about the policy rationale from both sides of the debate regarding the need for the law change and most importantly, what groups the bill should address.”

Clearly, the 85th legislature needs to hear from educators on why there is no actual need to change this law and no valid argument for taking away school employees’ right to use payroll deductions from their own wages as they choose.

ATPE members should explain to lawmakers why these bills are unnecessary, especially since no taxpayers dollars have ever been at risk as a result of the payroll deduction laws. Educators are also urged to ask their legislators why public school employees are the ones being targeted by these bills. If the proponents of these bills are truly concerned about unions that “attack businesses” and send their dues out of state to fund “anti-business policy campaigns,” as suggested by NFIB-TX in written testimony, then it makes no sense for them to pursue bills like SB 13 and HB 510 that punish groups such as ATPE, an organization not affiliated with any national union and a longtime supporter of right-to-work laws.

  • If you believe it’s unfair for lawmakers to single out educators for punishment because of their choices to join professional associations, then lawmakers need to hear from you.
  • If you think educators should be treated the same as other public employees like firefighters and police officers, then lawmakers need to hear from you.
  • If you are an educator who wants to continue to have options for managing your own money and believes the legislature has no business interfering with your personal choice to join a professional association, then lawmakers especially need to hear from you.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1ATPE members can log onto our website and use our tools at Advocacy Central to send quick messages to their legislators about this and other issues. We encourage you to call or write your legislators now, before these bills are on the move, and ask them to oppose this unnecessary legislation intended to silence the voices of the public education community. Let them know the facts behind payroll deduction and the people who would be affected by these bills if passed. If your representative or senator is one of the authors or co-authors supporting these bills, they still need to hear from you and understand that there are many voters who oppose the unfairly written SB 13 and HB 510.

Portrait of a young man with tape on mouth over colored backgroundToo often, the legislature makes decisions about public education based on input from non-educators. This could easily become another example of education laws and policies being steered by special interests outside of our school community because educators aren’t speaking up. And in this instance, if educators don’t speak up and oppose the ban on payroll deduction, their voices will carry far less weight in the future.

Texas Senate committee assignments for the 85th legislature

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick released his Senate committee assignments yesterday for the 85th Legislature.

As expected, Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee, and Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) will continue to serve as vice-chair. Senators Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Brian Hughes (R-Mineola), and Carols Uresti (D-San Antonio) were added to the committee in lieu of Senators Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), and Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) who served on the committee last session but were not reappointed. The number of committee members stays the same, but the balance of power is tilted further toward Republicans who picked up a seat while Democrats lost one. Senators Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), Don Huffines (R-Dallas), Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), Van Taylor (R-Plano), and Royce West (D-Dallas) make up the remainder of the committee.

The Senate State Affairs Committee, which is expected to receive Lt. Gov. Patrick’s priority Senate Bill (SB) 13 to ban payroll deduction for educators, also maintains a chair in Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), but newly elected Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) will take over as vice-chair. Chairwoman Huffman is the author of SB 13 and authored and passed out of her committee the same bill last session.

View all of the Senate committee assignments here.

 

Both chambers release versions of proposed Texas budget

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick confirmed yesterday that Senator Jane Nelson (R – Flower Mound) will continue to serve as the chair of the Senate Finance Committee for the 85th legislative session. Upon her reappointment, Sen. Nelson filed the Senate’s budget bill, Senate Bill 1.  SB 1 spends $103.6 billion in state revenue over the next two years, which is $1.3 billion less than the Comptroller’s 2018 and 2019 revenue projection.

The Senate issued a press release highlighting the fact that the budget includes “$2.65 billion to cover enrollment growth in public schools and $32 million more for high-quality pre-k programs.” This is $86 million less than the additional $118 million that would be needed to extend current pre-k funding to cover both years of the upcoming biennium.

Girl showing bank notesAs filed, SB 1 represents a continuation of current school funding formulas. However, according to the Senate press release, Nelson calls  “making sure the school finance system better meets the needs of students” a critical decision to be made by lawmakers this session.

Other specific items outlined in the budget per the SB 1 press release include:

  • $1 billion to address state hospital and mental health facility needs;
  • $63 million to clear the waitlist for community mental health services;
  • $20 million for a program to help veterans dealing with PTSD or other mental health issues;
  • $260 million to improve Child Protective Services;
  • $25 million for high caliber bulletproof vests for Texas law enforcement officers;
  • $800 million for border security measures approved last session; and
  • A 1.5 percent across-the-board spending reduction for all expenditures not related to public education.

The Senate press release on SB 1 can be found here.

On the House side, Speaker Joe Straus has not yet named which representative will replace former Rep. John Otto (R – Dayton) as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Otto did not seek re-election in 2016. Still, the House did release its version of a plan for the base budget yesterday, too. The Speaker’s press release touts the House budget plan as one that “puts additional resources into public education, child protection and mental health while increasing state spending by less than 1 percent.”

The House budget proposal:

  • Funds enrollment growth of about 165,000 students over the next two years;
  • Includes an additional $1.5 billion for public education that is contingent upon the passage of legislation that reduces recapture and improves equity in the school finance system; and
  • Includes $108.9 billion in general revenue.

The Speaker’s press release can be found here.

And so begins the tenure of the 85th Texas Legislature…

ThinkstockPhotos-99674144Today marked the first official day of the 85th legislative session. At noon today, 181 legislators were sworn in before their families and other invited guests in their respective chambers. In the upper chamber, Senator Kel Seliger (R) of Amarillo was elected President pro tempore, while across the rotunda, Representative Joe Straus (R) of San Antonio was re-elected to his fifth consecutive term as Speaker of the House.

In a dramatic show of strength, Speaker Straus was elected by a vote of 150 to 0. He is now tied with Gib Lewis and Pete Laney as the longest serving Speaker in Texas history. In his comments today, Speaker Straus called on his fellow House members to be thoughtful with tax dollars but also smart with regulation, doing their part to ensure that the legislature creates a government that works. In his remarks on crafting education policy this session, the Speaker called on legislators to partner with teachers and not treat them as adversaries.

For the sake of educators and schoolchildren alike, we hope the sentiment of cooperation with the state’s teachers prevails over the remaining 139 days of the 85th legislative session. Either way, your ATPE lobby team will be here every step of the way to report back on what the legislature is doing with regard to public education and to represent you with passion and professionalism at your Texas capitol. We encourage you to join us in our efforts by talking to your own lawmakers about ATPE’s legislative priorities. ATPE members can use our convenient grassroots tools on Advocacy Central to track the progress of bills, send messages to lawmakers, and even receive mobile updates. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and ATPE.org for more as the legislative session continues.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was at the Capitol to welcome legislators back for the start of the 85th legislative session.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was at the Capitol to welcome legislators back for the start of the 85th legislative session.

Rep. Dan Huberty shows off a celebratory cookie he received during a visit from Humble ATPE’s Gayle Sampley on opening day of the 85th legislature.

85th Texas Legislature will face tight budget

Get ready to tighten your belts.

Before each session, legislative budget writers wait with bated breath to hear the state comptroller hand down from on high the magic number that will guide their spending for the next 140 days. That number comprises the core of the biennial revenue estimate (BRE).

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashThe comptroller is basically the state’s top accountant, and crafting the BRE is the office’s biggest responsibility. Divined from tax receipts and economic trends, the BRE is a best guess as to how much tax money will be available for lawmakers to spend over the next two years. The legislature is legally bound to keep spending within that number, which makes an austere forecast about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party.

At a formal press conference this morning at the Texas Capitol, Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s BRE presentation for the 2018-19 biennium was marked by a subtle, yet unmistakably skunky fragrance.

Hegar announced the 85th Texas Legislature will have $104.9 billion available for general revenue spending, roughly $8 billion less than lawmakers got the green light to spend in 2015. Factors contributing to the pinch include sluggish growth in tax revenues – due in no small part to stubbornly low oil prices – and lawmakers’ decision last session to dedicate $5 billion in sales tax revenue to the highway fund.

According to the Texas Tribune, state Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), who appears poised to chair the House Appropriations Committee, suggested the number is $5 billion to $6 billion less than it would take to fund state services at current levels. Combine that with the governor’s directive that each agency cut its budget by four percent, and a picture of a penny-pinching budget battle takes shape.

Girl showing bank notes

When money is tight, we find out what our priorities are. We at ATPE believe investing in future generations should be at the top of the list.

Public education still hasn’t fully covered the $5.4 billion cut by the legislature in 2011. With enrollment growth outpacing teacher hiring, class sizes continue to increase, to the detriment of students. Per-student funding still lags 2011 levels in some districts. To top it off, the state has steadily decreased its share of school spending, forcing school districts to rely more and more on local property taxes to make up the difference.

But there is still room for optimism.

Even without a court mandate, House leadership under Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has expressed a strong desire to fix the school finance system this session. There’s been growing talk of increasing the basic per-student allotment. If a friendly Republican administration in Washington, D.C. provides relief in previously disputed areas of the budget, such as health care and border security, the result could be more state money freed up for other priorities.

It’s a matter of deciding what’s important.

Our children deserve a world-class education that doesn’t cost parents their home. If lawmakers truly want to cut property taxes, there’s a simple fix: Shift the burden of education funding back to the state. It will require taking a hard look at the budget and making tough choices about public spending, but it can be done. We’re optimistic that Texans will keep their eye on the ball this session and not be distracted by repackaged voucher schemes, teacher bashing bills, and smoke and mirrors tax cuts.

If we can maintain that focus, then we’ll end up with a budget that reflects our values as Texans.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 6, 2017

Happy New Year! The year 2017 has kicked off with several prominent news stories affecting public education:

 


Mark on camera

The Texas Education Agency released today an informational report containing preliminary “A through F” ratings for school campuses and districts. The legislatively mandated report is meant to give a preview of what types of grades schools would receive under a newly adopted accountability system that is set to take effect next school year, and the results are not encouraging. ATPE opposed the move to the A-F system when lawmakers adopted it last session, and now the harsh realities of the new rating system are causing many school districts to call for a repeal of the law. Read more about ATPE’s position on A-F in today’s blog post and also check out this quick video from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins on the ATPE Facebook page.

Related: As previously reported on our Teach the Vote blog, a change has been proposed to commissioner’s rules that would dramatically accelerate a jump in the cut scores associated with STAAR tests. The current rule allows for a more gradual increase in the performance standards, but that would change under the proposed revision. Advocates who are already dubious of the negative impacts those tests can have on students, campuses, and the perceptions of public schools in general have requested a public hearing to share their concerns over the impact of drastically increasing the cut scores with the commissioner and Texas Education Agency (TEA). The hearing will take place starting at 1:30 p.m. on January 13, 2017, in Room 1-111, William B. Travis Building, 1701 North Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas 78701. Stakeholders with concerns about the proposed rule are welcome to attend and provide input at the public hearing or submit written comments on the proposed revision via e-mail to TEA. The deadline for written comments, however, is Monday, Jan. 9.

 


Austin, Texas

Tuesday, Jan. 10, marks the opening of the 85th Texas legislative session. A number of education-related bills have already been pre-filed, including some that are alarming. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has designated private school vouchers among his top three legislative priorities for 2017, and he recently praised the filing of bills to eliminate educators’ access to payroll deduction for their voluntary dues paid to professional associations. ATPE is urging our members to use our online resources at Advocacy Central on ATPE.org to follow these bills throughout the session and send messages to their lawmakers opposing them. A school voucher bill to be designated Senate Bill 3 had not yet been filed as of the publication of this blog post. Senate Bill 13 and House Bill 510 banning payroll deduction for educators have been filed and are showcased on Advocacy Central.

The legislation to eliminate payroll deduction and privatize education can be viewed as part of a larger effort to devalue the education profession and public schools in general. Add to that the ongoing fights over school funding and recent legislative changes that require schools to receive controversial “A through F” accountability grades based largely on student test scores, and it’s easy to see why many people consider public education to be under attack. This session, more than ever, it’s important for pro-public education stakeholders to make their voices heard and drown out the divisive rhetoric about “failing” public schools and unfounded claims of misspent taxpayer resources.

Learn more about ATPE’s legislative priorities for the 85th Legislature here and here.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released the results of a survey it conducted during the latter part of last year. The survey asked parents, educators, students, and the general public to weigh in on how they’d like to see the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), implemented in Texas. Respondents were asked to provide input on five general topics, including teacher equity, school quality, and college and career readiness. Just over 29,000 respondents from across the state provided input. Learn more about the survey results in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

Related: The U.S. Education Department (ED) released three new guidance documents today that aim to help states as they implement ESSA. The documents cover guidelines for state plan development, report cards, and graduation rates. As ATPE’s federal lobby team reports: “The guidance reminds state officials about conducting outreach to key groups and stakeholders (including the governor, state lawmakers, institutions of higher education, and additional education representatives) as they work to develop the state plan. Details on this outreach should also be incorporated into the state plan submission to the Department. The guidance also reminds states that when incorporating new measures of school quality or student success that research should show how that measure increases student learning.”

 


17_web_Spotlight_ATC_RegistrationOpenATPE members are reminded to register to attend ATPE at the Capitol, our political involvement training and lobby day event. Taking place in Austin on March 5-6, 2017, this event gives educators an opportunity to learn about high-profile issues being debated at the capitol this session and meet with their own legislators to share concerns and input. The deadline to register is Feb. 3. Find complete details over at Advocacy Central on the ATPE website. (Member login is required to register for the event.)