Tomorrow is the last day of the special session that has featured a number of education-related debates. As ATPE’s lobbyists have been reporting here on Teach the Vote and Twitter, the special session agenda directed by Gov. Greg Abbott contained 20 topics, including some directly related to education, such as teacher pay and private school vouchers. ATPE joined with others in the education community to urge lawmakers to use this 30-day special session to address meaningful public education issues, such as advancing school finance improvements and helping educators facing dramatic increases in their healthcare costs.
- For its part, the Texas House of Representatives has proposed major school finance reforms similar to those developed with stakeholder input during the regular session, and House leaders have recommended making a conservative withdrawal from the state’s robust rainy day fund (Economic Stabilization Fund) to cover short-term needs, including shoring up the TRS-Care health insurance program for retired educators for the upcoming biennium.
- The Texas Senate has favored smaller one-time investments into the public education system paid for by deferring state payments to Medicaid/CHIP managed care organizations. These proposed deferrals would only increase the already $1.2 billion the next legislature will have to pay back to make Medicaid/CHIP whole during the 2019 legislative session. In addition to under funding Medicaid/CHIP, the Senate proposal fails to make any long-term changes to our state’s school finance system, preferring instead that a commission be appointed to study scraping the current system for two more years. Senators also proposed one-time bonuses for experienced teachers. The Senate, at the direction of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, initially coupled the one-time bonuses with proposed pay raises that would have been funded by school districts through their existing budgets, which the education community strongly rejected.
- Some of the high-profile issues on the governor’s special session agenda, such as passing state regulations for the use of bathrooms by transgender individuals and enacting a private school voucher program for students with special needs, were quickly advanced by the Senate but gained no traction in the more moderate House. With the final hours ticking down now in this special session, bills remaining in negotiations are primarily those dealing with property tax reform at the local level and a handful of education funding measures, such as helping school districts facing the loss of ASATR (Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction) monies and decreasing, in part, increased healthcare costs of retired educators, due to legislation passed during the regular session.
- Late today, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar released a revised state revenue estimate that shows legislators have more money to spend this special session than originally predicted. The announcement means there is an extra $237 million in general revenue available to be spent, which is a substantial jump from the $41.5 million in the original estimate last month. The “discovery” of the additional money could alleviate conflicts over whether to dip into the state’s rainy day fund or defer Medicaid MCO payments in order to fund remaining special session priorities, including those that are education-related.
Here is an update on recent votes and where the remaining bills stand:
Senate Bill 16: School Finance Commission
Yesterday, Aug. 14, the Texas House of Representatives debated Senate Bill 16, a bill intended to create a commission to study school finance. The bill by Sen. Larry Taylor is a renewed version of a similar measure considered during the regular session. The Senate unanimously approved SB 16 on July 24. The House voted 142-2 to advance its version of the measure yesterday, but not without a lengthy debate and controversy over amendments.
During yesterday’s House floor debate on SB 16, Rep. Bill Zedler offered a floor amendment to require the state to study “the effects” of letting educators voluntarily deduct their association dues from their own paychecks. The paycheck deduction issue, referred to by Gov. Abbott as the “collection of union dues,” has been on the governor’s special session wish list and a topic of much debate. Bills to eliminate educators’ right to use payroll deduction for their voluntary association dues were considered but not approved during both the regular and special sessions, as we have been reporting. Rep. Zedler’s floor amendment was viewed as a last gasp for air to keep the issue at the forefront of legislative discussions for two more years. During the floor debate, Rep. Zedler unabashedly articulated his political motivation for the amendment, complaining that educator associations like ATPE are helping teachers engage in the political process. The Zedler amendment failed by a vote of 49 to 78 after a bipartisan majority of representatives stood up for teachers’ rights, exposed the discriminatory intent of the amendment, and highlighted the fact that payroll deduction has already been studied and has been shown to result in no cost to the state or taxpayers.
ATPE has encouraged its members to thank those representatives who voted against the Zedler amendment on payroll deduction, as well as those who spoke eloquently on behalf of the education community during the debate, such as House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R) who highlighted the benefits that ATPE provides its dues-paying members and House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook (R) who called the amendment another form of “teacher discrimination.” Click here to view the breakdown of votes for and against the Zedler amendment, including statements added to the official House journal reflecting votes that were changed or corrected. To watch archived footage of the debate on the Zedler amendment to SB 16, click here and scroll to approximately the 1:43:22 mark during the video playback; debate resumes at the 2:01:00 mark after other amendments were considered.
In the event that SB 16 does not pass, similar language calling for creation of a school finance commission has been added to other bills that remain pending at this late stage.
House Bill 21 and House Bill 30: School Finance
This pair of bills offers another example of where the House and Senate diverge on school finance. The House-approved HB 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty contemplated an increase of $1.8 billion for public schools, but the Senate has balked at its price tag and method of finance (including use of the rainy day fund). HB 30 is a related bill that provides the source of the appropriation of the funds. Late last night and early this morning, the Senate approved its own version of HB 21, paring the funding down from $1.8 billion to $351 million (plus an additional $212 million for TRS-Care) and relying on the MCO payment deferral as its source. Both versions would provide some relief to districts facing an ASATR funding cliff this year, extra money for TRS-Care, and funds to help students with autism and dyslexia. The Senate’s version is more focused on one-time funding grants, while the House version calls for longer-term changes to the school finance formulas and increasing the basic allotment. Negotiations between House and Senate leaders, as well as the governor’s office, have been taking place around the clock.
Senate Bill 19: TRS-Care and/or Teacher Pay
This bill filed by Sen. Jane Nelson was originally intended to legislate teacher pay raises, but the Senate under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was reluctant to provide any state funding for the raises. Instead, the Senate modified the bill to provide a mechanism for one-time bonuses to veteran teachers using MCO payment deferrals, as well as extra money for TRS-Care. The Senate passed this bill on July 25, sending it to the House for consideration. The House Appropriations Committee stripped out the teacher bonus language and approved a version of the bill mirroring the language in HB 20, devoted entirely to helping retired educators with their rising healthcare costs using dollars from the ESF or Rainy Day Fund. The full House is slated to debate SB 19 today, and it’s unclear whether there will be sufficient time for the House and Senate to negotiate a deal before the session ends tomorrow.
Senate Bill 1: Property Taxes
Another bill passed in different versions by the House and Senate would address the ability of local governments to raise taxes. The bill remains stuck in a conference committee this afternoon, where one of the main issues in contention is the rollback rate for elections. Gov. Abbott has called passing property tax legislation his top priority for this special session.
Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and be sure to follow @TeachtheVote and our individual ATPE lobbyists on Twitter for the latest updates during the last hours of the special session.