Category Archives: 87th Legislature

State legislators preview budget, public education ahead of 2021 session

State legislators offered up a preview this week of what debates over public education policy and the budget could look like in the 87th Texas Legislature. Legislators spoke to the Texas Tribune as part of the Texas Tribune Festival 2020, which is being held virtually throughout the month of September.

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) and state Rep. Mary González (D-Clint), who serves on the subcommittee that oversees public education spending, addressed the budget.

Earlier this summer, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that the state will end the current two-year budget cycle at a $4.6 billion deficit, marking an $11.5 billion decline from what was estimated before the economic recession driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We definitely know this will be one of the worst budget sessions that we’ve ever experienced,” said Rep. González. “We haven’t really dealt with a deficit this big in a significant amount of time.”

González expressed optimism that Texas has fared better than other states during the economic recession, and suggested the House will look for innovative solutions for addressing the budget crunch, such as looking for areas to cut or raise new revenue.

González said her personal wish list includes drawing down additional federal funding by expanding Medicaid and reducing the amount of additional state money legislators have chosen to spend on border security. Chairman Capriglione said he is hopeful that future relief funds from the federal government will support state and local municipalities as well.

Regarding Texas’s Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), Capriglione noted that the “rainy day fund” will likely not be the only solution and legislators will want to be able to save some money for future emergencies, such as another hurricane. Rep. González suggested the fund will not be enough to meet all of the state’s needs. The chairman also pointed out that legislation passed during the last legislative session allowed the state to invest some of the ESF, which generated $230 million in interest income last year.

State leaders have asked most agencies to cut their budgets by 5% ahead of the next budget cycle, which Chairman Capriglione said will have to be cleared by legislators. The chairman said cuts made now will serve to ease some of the pressure during the next budget cycle. Rep. González cautioned that cuts must be made in a way that does not harm vulnerable populations. Capriglione added that public health, public safety, and public education should be protected.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) spoke on Monday about the shape of the public education discussion when legislators meet in January. Chairman Huberty suggested the next legislative session will be about maintaining rather than expanding the changes made by House Bill (HB) 3, the school finance bill legislators passed last session. This includes preserving the funding that went to providing a modest increase to some educators’ salaries.

Both admitted they haven’t looked at new revenue sources for HB 3 other than relying on the economy to improve. Huberty suggested we could find money by pausing some programs under HB 3 right after mentioning the incentive program. On the other hand Taylor talked about continuing the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) because districts are using it.

The chairmen also addressed the concerns of districts that have voiced frustration over federal relief funding Congress appropriated for schools, which the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has used to supplant rather than supplement state funding for schools. Chairman Taylor explained the decision was made in order to keep the state’s commitment to provide funding at the same level districts expected to receive before the recession hit. Yet, both chairmen suggested school districts will need to use some of their fund balances to fill in budget holes.

The 87th Texas Legislature is scheduled to meet January 12, 2021.

Texas election roundup: HEB owner advocates for voter safety

Charles Butt, the owner of beloved Texas grocery chain H-E-B, wrote a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week arguing in support of the ability of Texans to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter comes in response to a fight between Harris County and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over voting by mail, which unfortunately has become a partisan issue.

“We’ve worked hard to give customers the opportunities to buy their food in the safest way. In light of this, I also support efforts to allow voting by mail, which is the safest means for people to exercise this vital right during this time,” wrote Mr. Butt. “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.”

Houston has become the focal point in the battle over voting by mail. In the latest turn, the Texas Supreme Court has ordered Harris County not to send all voters applications for mail-in ballots. Paxton filed the original lawsuit in response to a decision by the Harris County clerk to send applications to all voters in the county with the aim of ensuring safer voting during the pandemic. The clerk now plans to send applications to all voters over the age of 65, which is just one of the categories of persons eligible to vote by mail.

It’s important to note that applications are not the same as ballots. A voter must meet the requirements for voting by mail and return a completed application for a mail-in ballot to their county election official in order to receive a ballot in the mail. Once the voter receives their actual ballot, they can fill it out and mail it back to the county election department to cast their vote.

The field of candidates is now set for the special election scheduled for September 29 in Senate District (SD) 30 in North Texas. The special election comes after state Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) announced plans to resign the seat in anticipation of his likely election to the U.S. Congress. SD 30 voted to reelect U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) by a margin of more than 44%, making it virtually certain the Senate seat will remain in Republican hands.

Friday marked the deadline to file for the open seat, and several contenders have thrown their hats into the ring. The Republican candidates include state Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster), Denton Mayor Chris Watts, beauty salon owner Shelley Luther, bootmaker Craig Carter, and consultant Andy Hopper. Union activist and electrician Jacob Minter is the lone Democrat to file. Early voting runs Sept. 14 through 25.

The latest Texas poll shows President Donald Trump (R) and former Vice President Joe Biden (D) remain in a statistical tie. A Morning Consult survey conducted after the two party conventions shows Trump leading Biden 48% to 47% in Texas, which is within the poll’s margin of error. The 1% margin is unchanged from before the conventions, in which Trump led Biden by 47% to 46%.

October 4 is the last day to register to vote for the Nov. 3 presidential election. You can check your registration status here and get started on your registration if you are eligible and not already registered.

 

Texas election roundup: North Texas Senate race takes shape and more

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) announced over the weekend there will be a special election Sept. 29 to replace outgoing state Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), who is vacating his seat in the Texas Senate in order to run for U.S. Congress.

Fallon won the Republican nomination to replace U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX 4), who President Donald Trump appointed Director of National Intelligence. In the overwhelmingly Republican 4th Congressional District of Texas, Fallon is virtually guaranteed to win the general election in November.

Fallon sent a letter to Gov. Abbott on Saturday announcing his resignation effective Jan. 4 at midnight. Abbott’s proclamation states that the emergency special election is being set so quickly to ensure Senate District (SD) 30 is represented when the next legislative session begins in January. This marks an about-face from the governor’s decision-making when then-state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) resigned her seat in order to run for Congress in 2018. The governor waited to set the special election for that seat, leaving voters in SD 6 without representation for several months at the beginning of the 86th Texas Legislature.

Candidates have until 5:00 p.m. Friday to file for the SD 30 special election, and several contenders have already announced their candidacy. State Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) was the first to announce his candidacy and has received endorsements from Sen. Fallon and several members of the Texas House and Texas Senate. Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, who achieved notoriety among certain circles for her arrest in violation of state and local public health orders, has announced her intent to run. Denton Mayor Chris Watts has submitted his resignation as mayor and has established a campaign committee for SD 30. ATPE will be profiling each candidate in the special election here on Teach the Vote as their campaigns are launched. Early voting in the SD 30 special election will begin Monday, Sept. 14.

U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a GOP megadonor appointed to run the U.S. Postal Service in May, testified before Congress this week in response to an escalating scandal over ordering changes that have resulted in nationwide mail delays, which the postal service has warned could disrupt the delivery of mail-in ballots in the November election.

DeJoy promised to deliver election mail on time in November, but urged those voting by mail to request their ballots early and mail them in as soon as possible. DeJoy also defended his decisions to House and Senate committees and refused to put back more than 600 mail sorting machines that have been taken out of service and dismantled.

The agency and DeJoy’s actions have come under bipartisan scrutiny after President Trump stated in an interview on Fox Business Channel and a subsequent White House briefing earlier this month that he will oppose funding for the postal service in order to prevent it from being able to process mail-in ballots. On Saturday, U.S. House Democrats and 26 Republicans passed bipartisan legislation that would continue funding for the Postal Service and block DeJoy’s operational changes.

The Republican National Convention continues this week, with President Trump scheduled to close out the event with a speech Thursday night. The convention continued its focus on school privatization Wednesday by featuring a speech from a school voucher advocate before the primetime address by Vice-President Mike Pence, who emphasized that privatization would be a top priority for the administration in a second term.

Senate Finance releases first interim report as the House ramps up its committee work

On Friday, the Senate Finance committee released its interim report containing recommendations for the 87th Texas Legislature set to convene in Jan. 2021. The report touched on proposed reforms to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas and the Permanent School Fund (PSF), which helps fund public schools in Texas.

Each committee in the Texas Legislature spends the time between legislative sessions — the “interim” — writing a report to hand off to that committee’s future self when the next session begins. The subject matter of the interim report is determined by interim committee charges handed out by the lieutenant governor in the Senate and the speaker in the House. The charges generally include monitoring major legislation passed in the prior legislative session, committee recommendations on how to address notable developments since session that fall under the committee’s jurisdiction, and proposals for additional legislation to consider in the upcoming legislative session.

Typically a committee’s interim report is preceded by one or more interim hearings on the committee’s assigned charges, but due the realities of COVID-19 have kept committees from holding regular hearings this year. On July 16, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen informed House committee chairs of three COVID-compliant options for conducting interim business. In keeping with those options, house committees have recently put out calls to the public for written comments, which the committee will consider prior to releasing its report. However, seeking public input is not a prerequisite to producing an interim report, and some committees may not request any such feedback.

The Senate Finance Committee was first out of the gate this cycle to release its interim report. In it, the committee studied the management, structure, and investments of the state’s major trust funds. At a combined nearly $200 billion, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas’ (TRS) pension fund and the Permanent School Fund (PSF) are among the state’s largest trust funds, and the report touched on each. The report also highlighted the impact the economic recession driven by COVID-19 has made on the state’s investment funds across the board.

Legislators passed Senate Bill (SB) 12 last session, a significant reform bill aimed at increasing contributions to the TRS pension fund in order to reduce its funding period from 87 years to 29 years and qualify for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). The Senate Finance committee’s interim report mentions that the need to serve 1.6 million retirees necessitates a significant staff size, which in turn requires substantial office space for TRS. The agency is currently seeking a long-term solution for its space needs.

The committee report also noted that the 15-member State Board of Education (SBOE) and the 5-member School Land Board (SLB) each control a portion of the PSF. The SBOE manages $34 billion in the fund’s investment portfolio, while the SLB manages $7.1 billion in real estate owned by the PSF. Each entity has the authority to transfer money to the Available School Fund (ASF), which provides money to local districts, but the SLB has usually routed its portion through the SBOE. This separation became a political issue last session. Legislators unsuccessfully attempted to pass a bill that would have created a combined management structure, settling instead on a bill that required the SLB and SBOE to hold formal meetings in order to work together.

The recommendations in the Senate Finance report relevant to TRS and the PSF include the following:

  • Consider reforms to statutory limits on TRS investments in real estate to increase transparency in any future real estate investments by the TRS Pension Trust Fund.
  • Evaluate the efficiency of the current governance and investment structure of the PSF and consider alternative structures to reduce costs and streamline transfers to the ASF.
  • Continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on markets and major state investment funds. Look for ways to further insulate the state from future global pandemics or similar events.

Despite Pre-K through 12th grade public education funding representing over one-third of the total Texas budget, public education is not significantly addressed, outside of the limited areas mentioned above, in the Senate Finance Committee’s report.

The following other legislative committees have posted notice for formal requests for information directly related to public education:

The House Pensions/Investments/Financial Services committee is requesting information due by August 28, 2020, related to a few of that committee’s interim charges. Interim Charge 2 is to monitor TRS actions in implementing high-deductible regional healthcare plans for certain school districts interested in providing alternatives to the current TRS-ActiveCare options. Interim Charge 4, which is a joint charge with the House Appropriations committee, is to review and evaluate the actuarial soundness of the Employees Retirement System and TRS pension funds; examine the cost of and potential strategies for achieving and maintaining the actuarial soundness of the funds; examine the effect the unfunded liabilities could have on the state’s credit; and examine the state’s investment policies and practices, including investment objectives, targets, disclosure policies, and transparency. Interim Charge 5 is to monitor the State Auditor’s review of agencies and programs under the Committee’s jurisdiction.

The House Higher Education committee is also requesting information, due by September 1, 2020, on five interim charges, which cover a variety of topics including online coursework and degrees, reviewing progress towards 60x30TX goals, and higher education infrastructure.

The House Appropriations subcommittee on Article III has issued a formal request for information, due by September 30, 2020. The subcommittee will address one interim charge specifically related to K-12 education, which is to evaluate the ongoing costs associated with implementing the provisions of last year’s school finance and reform bill, House Bill (HB) 3. In addition to this charge, the committee will also seek information related to oversight of the implementation of education-related legislation and spending, as well as higher-education funding equity and efficiency.

The House Ways and Means committee is requesting information due by September 14, 2020, on a variety of charges, one of which is to study and consider possible methods of providing tax relief, including potential sources of revenue that may be used to reduce or eliminate school district maintenance and operations property tax rates.

The House Elections committee has requested information due by September 18, 2020, on its interim charges, which include oversight of elections bills passed by the 86th legislature last year, making recommendations for best practices for conducting an election during a declared disaster, and evaluating election laws with the purpose of strengthening voter integrity and fair elections. The charges also include a review of the state’s curbside voting protocols, which are increasingly being utilized due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Texas Senate has not released ways for other committees to conduct interim business. As of now, the Senate Health and Human Services committee has a hearing scheduled for September 9, 2020, at 9:00 a.m.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on additional interim committee work between now and the end of the year.

Texas projected to face $4.6 billion deficit by the end of the current biennium

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the elected official charged with overseeing the state’s finances, now expects Texas will face a $4.6 billion deficit by the end of the current two-year budget cycle. The state had as recently as February been looking at a multi-billion dollar surplus heading into next session.

One of the comptroller’s primary jobs is releasing state revenue estimates, which project how much tax revenue the state is expected to collect in relation to how much it is budgeted to spend. These estimates are revised periodically, particularly in the event of a drastic change in economic circumstances. The economic downturn caused by the simultaneous events of the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price war certainly marked a drastic change.

Certification Revenue Estimate 2020-21 Info-graphic from the Texas Comptroller

The comptroller told legislators back in April that the economic double-whammy had sent Texas officially into a recession. On Monday, Hegar testified before the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and shared a revised revenue estimate that offered sobering numbers. The state is projected to end fiscal year (FY) 2021 with a budget shortfall of $4.6 billion — a $7.5 billion reversal from the $2.9 billion surplus his office projected in the certified revenue estimate (CRE) released in October 2019. The state is now expected to have $110.2 billion in available general revenue for the 2020-2021 budget biennium, representing an $11.6 billion decline from $121.8 projected in the 2019 CRE.

A mathematically-minded observer may note that the numbers do not exactly match up. Hegar explained that while revenue collections dropped by $11.6 billion, the budget fell by only $7.5 billion as a result of a handful of factors that reduced the amount of money the state was expecting to spend. Among them, Texas received $1.2 billion of federal CARES Act funding for public education that it used to offset state spending. Changes in the assumptions regarding the state share and the local share of public education funding resulted in $1.7 billion in unanticipated local funding. The state also received an additional $700 million in recapture (or “Robin Hood”) payments that it had not anticipated.

Source: Texas Comptroller

Sen. Finance Committee Chair state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) asked Hegar in Monday’s LBB hearing whether legislators should expect to tighten their belts during the next legislative session. Hegar was reticent to prognosticate beyond the current budget cycle. However, he was quick to point out that he had pushed early on for agencies to reduce their spending ahead of next session. State leaders have since instructed state agencies to reduce spending by 5% across the board. Hegar noted that instruction is not factored into this projection. Any savings will however reduce the need for supplemental spending in the next legislative session, reducing the overall pressure on the next biennium’s budget.

In response to a question posed by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), Hegar indicated that the state will be able to ensure schools receive the additional funding promised this budget cycle as a result of the school finance bill House Bill (HB) 3. Yet Hegar suggested there is tremendous uncertainty as to what the state will be able to provide in the upcoming 2022-23 budget cycle.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) said Monday that school districts across the state have roughly $14 billion in fund balances, which represents each district’s cash reserves. Patrick suggested that the state could tap those fund balances to offset the budget deficit. Patrick separately acknowledged that teachers are now included in the list of “frontline” workers in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey (left) interviews Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar (R-Texas).

The revised estimate released this week does not take into account agency budget cuts, whether schools reopen for in-person versus remote instruction, or any future federal relief money. Hegar explained Wednesday in an interview with Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey that the estimate does not factor in any additional federal relief money until a bill is passed by Congress and signed by the president. Hegar also told Ramsey that the estimate was based upon the assumptions that the economic recovery is already underway, that there will not be an additional spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall that would spark another shutdown, and that GDP may return to normal by the end of 2021.

Hegar said that the state saw a less drastic decline in sales tax revenue than he had previously feared. The state also took in $950 million more in taxes from online purchases as a result of legislation passed during the last legislative session that expanded the sales tax.

Source: Texas Comptroller.

The economic stabilization fund (ESF), commonly referred to as the “rainy day fund,” is projected to end FY 2021 with a balance of $8.8 billion. This fund is fed by taxes collected from oil and gas operations, which have been hit hard by the combination of lower oil prices and a reduction in production following the precipitous drop in demand caused by the economic impacts of the pandemic. The ESF was designed as a safety feature to enable legislators to dip into the fund to during lean years, smoothing out the fluctuations in available tax revenue caused by volatility in the oil and gas market and enabling the state to maintain critical government services.

In both testimony and interviews this week, Hegar has emphasized the need for the community to come to terms with the reality of a protracted battle against COVID-19. Hegar highlighted citizens’ responsibility to wear masks and engage in safe practices designed to slow the disease’s spread and prevent another shutdown. On a positive note, Hegar noted the healthy ESF and potential savings from agency budget cuts are among the measures at the state’s disposal to help manage the budget shortfall.

“There’s plenty of tools in the toolbox to be able deal with it as this current revenue estimate projects,” said Hegar, while adding the caveat, “Every revenue estimate has clouds of uncertainty, yet this one has greater clouds of uncertainty than ever before.”

The comptroller discussed other potential sources of revenue and savings in Wednesday’s interview. Hegar contended that an income tax is unlikely to pass in Texas, where such a proposal would require a supermajority of the Texas legislature and a statewide vote. The comptroller was also skeptical of the idea of legalizing and taxing marijuana, which polling shows is supported by most Texans. Hegar instead pointed to budget measures taken during the 2011 legislative session, which saw large budget cuts (including $5.4 billion from public education) as a result of a projected budget shortfall. The comptroller also mentioned deferring public education payments and looking at funding for Medicaid.

When the 87th Texas Legislature convenes in January 2021, shoring up the current budget will be the first task legislators face. Their next task will be to set the budget for the 2022-2023 biennium, which Hegar warned is likely to be a much bigger issue — although it’s too early to forecast the scope of the challenge. That will be the focus of the comptroller’s biennial revenue estimate (BRE), which is usually released right before the new legislative session begins.

Texas election roundup: Runoff results are in!

Numbers are in from Tuesday’s primary runoff elections across the state. On a day that raised serious questions about the state’s ability to hold an effective election during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a few surprise wins and losses. Some mail ballots had yet to be counted early Wednesday morning. Because of this and issues with reporting by the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which documents election results, these results remain unofficial and subject to change.

U.S. Senate

In the marquee race on the Democratic runoff ballot, U.S. Air Force veteran MJ Hegar defeated state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) 52% to 48%. Hegar will face Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the November election. Sen. West will continue to serve out his term as a state senator.

State Board of Education (SBOE)

Two SBOE primary races resulted in a runoff that concluded last night. Both races are for open seats where the incumbent is not seeking re-election.

Michelle Palmer defeated Kimberly McCleod in the Democratic runoff for SBOE District 6, which represents Houston. Palmer will face Republican Will Hickman and Libertarian candidate Whitney Bilyeu in November. The seat is currently held by Donna Bahorich (R-Houston), who is not running for reelection.

Republican Lani Popp defeated controversial candidate Robert Morrow in the District 5 GOP runoff. Popp will face Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau and Libertarian candidate Stephanie Berlin in in November. Notably, Popp had been endorsed by all sitting Republican members of the board, including incumbent Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio). SBOE Chair Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) weighed in on the race Tuesday morning via Twitter with one of the day’s less subtle endorsements:

Texas House of Representatives

Several Texas House incumbents lost their primary runoff contests Tuesday, including several who had trailed their opponents by a substantial margin during the March primaries and a couple who had only held their House seats for a few short months.

State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), who served in the House since 2002 and previously chaired the House Pensions committee, lost to repeat challenger Bryan Slaton by a vote of 37% to 63% in the House District (HD) 2 Republican runoff. Flynn had been endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott and by the pro-public education group Texas Parent PAC. Slaton will go on to face Democrat Bill Brannon in November.

Republican Cody Vasut defeated Ro’Vin Garrett in HD 25, which is the open race for the seat currently held by outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton). Vasut will face Democrat Patrick Henry in November.

In a HD 26 double header, Republican Jacey Jetton beat Matt Morgan, while repeat candidate Sarah DeMerchant defeated Suleman Lalani in the Democratic runoffJetton and DeMerchant will now face each other in the fall for the seat held by outgoing state Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land) who is not seeking re-election. Voters in HD 26 have elected Republicans in the past, but the district has been trending Democratic. Beto O’Rourke won the district by 1.6% in 2018 after Donald Trump won by 4.9% in 2016. Greg Abbott won the district by more than 33% in 2014.

Republican candidate Carrie Isaac handily defeated Bud Wymore in HD 45. Isaac, the wife of former Rep. Jason Isaac, will face incumbent Democratic Rep.Erin Zwiener and Green Party candidate Dan Lyon in the November general election. This one is considered a very competitive swing district.

In another Republican match-up, Justin Berry defeated Jennifer Fleck in HD 47. Berry will go up against incumbent Democratic Rep. Vikki Goodwin along with with Libertarian candidate Michael Clark in the general election. HD 47 is yet another swing district deemed to be competitive for both major parties.

State Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville) fell to challenger Shelby Slawson in the HD 59 Republican runoff, 38% to 62%. Like ousted incumbent Flynn, Sheffield had been visibly supported by the governor, and he was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC over the course of multiple elections. Slawson is unopposed in the general election, making this one a “winner-take-all” runoff.

In a stern rebuke of anti-public education provocateurs Empower Texans, Glenn Rogers defeated Jon Francis in the open HD 60 GOP runoff, 52% to 48%. Rogers was supported by Texas Parent PAC and Gov. Abbott, while Francis’s campaign was bankrolled almost entirely by his father-in-law, West Texas billionaire and Empower Texans megadonor Farris Wilks. Rogers faces third-party candidate Scott Coleman in the fall.

In another Democratic runoff, Lorenzo Sanchez will go on to face incumbent Republican Jeff Leach in the general after defeating Tom Adair in the HD 67 Democratic primary. Green Party candidate Kashif Riaz will also be on the November ballot.

State Rep. Lorraine Birabil (D-Dallas) appears to have narrowly lost to challenger Jasmine Crockett by less than 100 votes in the HD 100 Democratic runoff. Birabil, who was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC, won a special runoff election in January to fill the seat previously held by Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. Crockett moves forward unopposed in the general election, making her the presumptive winner of this seat.

Democrat Liz Campos defeated Jennifer Ramos in the HD 119 runoff. She will face Republican George B. Garza in the November election, along with Green Party candidate Antonio Padron and Libertarian Arthur Thomas, IV. The seat is currently held by state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, who is running run for the Texas Senate.

Democrat Akilah Bacy soundly beat Jenifer Rene Pool in HD 138 for another open seat. Bacy, who has been endorsed by Texas Parent PAC, will face Republican Lacey Hull in November to replace outgoing state Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) who is not seeking re-election.

State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) defeated his challenger Jerry Davis in the HD 142 Democratic primary, 52% to 48%. Dutton, the third longest serving member in the Texas House, will face Republican challenger Jason Rowe and an independent candidate Whitney Hatter in the fall.

In HD 148, Democratic challenger Penny Morales Shaw defeated another short-term incumbent, state Rep. Anna Eastman (D-Houston) by 200 votes, 54% to 46%. Eastman won a special runoff election in January to fill the seat vacated by former state Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston). Shaw will face Republican Luis LaRotta in the general election.

Texas Senate

There were two Texas State Senate runoffs in play yesterday. First, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) defeated Xochil Pena Rodriguez in the Democratic runoff for Senate District (SD) 19 to face Republican state Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) in the general election. Libertarian candidate Jo-Anne Valdivia will also be on the ballot in November. Sen. Flores flipped this seat that was previously held by a Democrat in a surprising special election held in September 2018.

In SD 27, State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) last night survived a primary challenge by Brownsville attorney Sara Stapleton-Barrera by a vote of 54% to 46%. Sen. Lucio, who has served as Vice Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, will face Republican Vanessa Tijerina in the general election; an independent candidate Javier Navarro also filed to run for this seat. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick congratulated Lucio on his primary win.

Many Austin-area voters also participated in a special election Tuesday. Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt appears headed to a runoff against state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) after finishing with 49.7% and 33.8% of the vote, respectively. The two Democrats were the top finishers in a special election to represent SD 14, after longtime state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) resigned earlier this year to accept a post with the University of Houston.

Voter Turnout

In general, the primary runoffs exposed some deeply troubling issues with voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from problems with voting by mail, to staffing issues resulting from poll workers who refused to wear masks, to issues for voters who have tested positive for COVID-19.

A total of 660,184 Democrats and 420,960 Republicans voted early in the runoff elections for a combined turnout of 6.61%. Of those, 30% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans cast ballots by mail. Election Day turnout figures were not immediately available from the Texas Secretary of State, but 955,735 Democrats voted in the statewide runoff for U.S. Senate. There was not a statewide runoff on the Republican ballot, making comparisons difficult without official turnout numbers.

Sunset report recommends TRS improve its member relations

Every state agency in Texas is subject to a period review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. When the state creates a new agency, it usually sets a “sunset” date. This is the date when the agency will cease to exist unless the commission decides it should continue. Even agencies that are created by the Texas Constitution and cannot be abolished, such as the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas, undergo cyclical review by the Sunset Advisory Commission to determine ways they can improve and operate more efficiently.

The TRS Sunset Report was released last week, as we reported last Friday here on Teach the Vote. While much of the report addresses standard sunset fare such as integrating best practices and improving transparency and oversight, one issue identified in the report seems likely to resonate with TRS members above the rest: “TRS Needs to Repair Its Relationship With Its Members by Focusing on Their Needs.”

Excerpt from the 2020-21 Sunset Staff Report on TRS

Sunset commission staff points out in the report, “While TRS has a critical fiduciary duty to manage the $157 billion trust fund in the best interest of its members, the agency also has an important responsibility to ensure its members have the support and information needed to be secure in retirement.”

The report goes on to state that in the Sunset Advisory Commission staff’s estimation:

“TRS’ benefit counseling options do not meet members’ needs… TRS has not provided the information and support its members need to be secure in retirement, with overly complex explanations, insufficient retirement information, and inadequate counseling options… TRS also does not provide enough member-friendly financial planning information to ensure members understand what they need to prepare for retirement, such as the importance of additional savings beyond their TRS pension benefits.”

Sunset staff identify core issues and findings, as well as recommendations to address them. In considering sunset recommendations and weighing their merit, it is important to consider that implementing new programs and initiatives comes at a cost, mostly in additional manpower. For TRS, those costs are paid directly out of the same trust fund that provides member benefits.

The sunset staff’s first finding related to the issue of repairing TRS’ relationship with its members is that the agency “has not provided the information and support members need to adequately ensure they are secure in retirement.” With 1.6 million members, most of whom have limited or no access to Social Security benefits and little other retirement savings outside of their TRS pension, simply managing the TRS trust assets and administering pension payments is not good enough without taking a more holistic role in helping TRS members prepare for a secure retirement.

This is particularly true when considering that Texas is last in the country in the percentage of payroll our state puts toward teacher retirement. The state does not provide mandatory cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) on a regular basis and rarely provides funding for even one-time COLAs. Together, these legislatively driven policies mean that a TRS pension alone often will not provide a comfortable — or potentially even adequate — retirement over the duration of an average educator’s retired years.

This makes it even more important for Texas educators to understand the importance of having a supplemental retirement plan and to begin funding that plan early in their careers. Sunset staff point out that other state retirement systems, including the Employees Retirement System (ERS) for Texas state employees, “emphasize retirement planning is a shared responsibility between members and the system.” On the other hand, the report observes that TRS “puts the burden of navigating the complex retirement system primarily on its members.”

To make matters worse, TRS appears to have serious deficiencies communicating in the areas where it does currently engage with its members on retirement issues. Regarding the agency’s written materials, sunset staff found that TRS commonly uses legalistic language and overly complex explanations. While call times have come down significantly, TRS has not yet met its internal goal of answering 80% of calls within three minutes. More troubling, when agency staff do answer a call, internal policy prevents most TRS phone counselors from relaying basic information such as a member’s account balance or estimated retirement benefits — not to mention explanations of how systems such as TRS and Social Security are supposed to interact, which often leaves TRS members confused and frustrated.

To receive more complete information on their TRS benefits, a member must make an appointment — often months in advance — and then travel to Austin for an in-person consultation. Thankfully, TRS is looking into opening a limited number of field offices to do in-person consultations in the future so that some members will not have to make the trek to Austin. Why the agency is only now contemplating this option is somewhat baffling. (TRS has been offering member consultations via video conferencing during the current shutdown period that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.)

In order to address these issues, sunset commission staff recommend that the legislature require TRS to develop a communications and outreach plan to help members prepare for retirement. Sunset staff also recommend, with regard to other issues identified in the report, that TRS engage stakeholders and adopt a member engagement policy. Also, the legislature should consider incorporating  recommendations for required stakeholder engagement into the development of TRS’ communications plan.

Continuing on the issue of repairing its relationship with its members by focusing on their needs, the sunset report also recommends that TRS improve its communications with employers, improve  efforts to return contributions to inactive members, and adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.

The commission staff found that many, if not most, employers of TRS members report that the system TRS uses to collect payroll and other information from them is cumbersome and “plagued with problems,” even three years after its launch. TRS should attempt to resolve the problems with its reporting system and do a better job of providing troubleshooting for employers that are trying to work around such problems until they are resolved.

Sunset staff also suggest that TRS provide employers and education service centers (ESCs) with training so that school districts and ESCs can help educate TRS members (school employees) on retirement and healthcare issues. While this sounds good in theory, as districts certainly have more access to their own employees than TRS ever will, I am skeptical of most districts’ desire to take on this additional responsibility. Prior to pursuing this recommendation, TRS should communicate with school district leaders to determine if districts would actually utilize any such training or tools TRS might create for them. Policymakers should also consider whether such a communications strategy might be duplicative or confusing for TRS members.

The sunset staff further recommend that TRS be more proactive in returning contributions to inactive members. However, additional effort on the agency’s part has an administrative and staffing cost. Therefore, in considering this sunset recommendation, TRS and the legislature should work to balance the needs of members leaving the retirement system with those who will remain in it.

Certainly, educators have a right to redeem the contributions they have put into the system if they leave it; however, they also bear some responsibility for being aware of their own money. TRS currently sends a refund application to members who have not requested a refund on their own when their membership automatically terminates after seven years of inactivity under Texas law.The report’s description of contributions being “forfeited” after seven years of inactivity could lead some to believe that former members lose the ability to redeem their contributions at some point. In fact, former TRS members remain eligible to withdraw their funds at any time, before or after the seven year mark.

As the sunset staff noted, federal law prohibits TRS from automatically returning funds to an inactive member. Should active and retired members bear the cost of additional staff, the use of credit reporting agencies, or sending out thousands of pieces of certified mail to track down long-time inactive members who have failed to claim their own money?

Finally, the sunset report recommends that TRS “adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.” Generally speaking, this is an excellent idea. A policy that incorporates increased use of expanded stakeholder groups and a better methodology for clear and timely two-way communication could go along way toward improving TRS functions and educators’  perceptions of the agency. However, it is important that any legislative action around this recommendation stay focused on the broader context of improving overall communications between TRS and its members.

Unfortunately, legislators might end up focusing only on issues surrounding TRS’ abandoned decision to lease a particular property to house its investment division. If this happens, discussions could easily become mired in attempts to assign blame around this single, high-profile issue. Rather, the legislature should consider a more positive approach of trying to holistically improve TRS’ communications and engagement with and trust among its members.

State comptroller says Texas is in a recession

In an interview Tuesday morning, April 7, 2020, with Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar repeated a statement he had already made to legislators in private last month regarding the combined economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and plummeting oil prices.

“I know that we are unfortunately in a recession,” said Hegar, whose office oversees the state’s finances. “I just don’t know how deep or how wide it’s going to be.”

The comptroller’s certification revenue estimate in October 2019 projected that the state would end the current budget cycle with a balance of $2.9 billion in general revenue and $9.3 billion in the state’s economic stabilization fund (ESF), which is often referred to as the “rainy day fund.” Hegar said he plans to release a revised revenue estimate in July, which he predicts will be several billions dollars less. Many are questioning just how much of a toll the double-whammy of a pandemic and an oil price war will take on the state’s budget — especially after legislators significantly increased public education funding under House Bill (HB) 3 in 2019.

Hegar said Tuesday the state is expected to have enough cash flow to meet its obligations through the end of the current budget, which runs through August 31, 2021. While contributions to the ESF are expected to decrease as a result of declining oil and gas revenues, the comptroller’s office is still projecting a balance of $8.5 billion in the fund by the end of the current budget cycle.

Altogether, Hegar said he does not believe legislators will need to be called into a special session this year to shore up the current budget, but he added that the start of the next legislative session in January 2021 will be quickly upon us. Next session, legislators anticipate facing the daunting task of funding state priorities over the next budget cycle with significantly less money available.

The reason less money will be available has to do with how Texas government is funded. Since Texas does not have an income tax, sales and use taxes account for 57% of state revenue. Local governments are funded by a combination of sales and property taxes. When places like bars, restaurants, and stores make less money, they send in less sales tax revenue. Surging unemployment has the same effect on sales taxes by depressing consumer spending, as well as inhibiting people’s ability to keep up with their property taxes.

All this is happening at the same time the demand for government services such as unemployment, healthcare, and food assistance is increasing. The result is an unprecedented strain on government at every level, yet Hegar noted that state agencies should look for ways to cut spending.

The comptroller’s office is currently working off of sales tax revenue reports released in March detailing economic activity that happened in February, which was before social distancing was enforced. April sales tax numbers will provide a better look at the economic impact of business closures and downsizing, but that report won’t be available until the end of May. Hegar is waiting on those numbers to give a better estimate of the impact on the state budget in the planned revised revenue estimate this summer.

So what does this all mean for public education? It’s still unclear. Hegar noted Tuesday that  education and health and human services make up the two largest components of the state budget. Hegar noted that state leaders will likely begin discussing ways to cut agency spending during the current budget cycle, but he suggested that areas like the Foundation School Program (FSP) and Medicaid should be exempted from cuts this year. The FSP is the finance formula that flows funding for public education to local schools.

The state is also awaiting federal coronavirus aid recently passed by Congress, which will send billions of dollars to schools across the nation. Future federal aid packages are likely to have an additional impact on the state budget going into next session. There are already talks coming out of Washington about a fourth coronavirus stimulus bill that could provide as much as one trillion dollars in additional aid.

The one phrase Hegar repeated multiple times throughout this morning’s 45-minute interview was “managing expectations.” The comptroller was clear that the state is in the midst of a recession driven largely by the COVID-19 outbreak and aggravated by the oil price war. We still don’t know how many billions of dollars this will drain from the state’s budget going forward, but it will be significant. We’ll have a better look when the comptroller releases his revised estimate in July.

You can watch the full Texas Tribune interview with Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar here.

Texas election roundup: Last chance to vote early!

Friday, Feb. 28, is the last chance to vote early in the 2020 Texas primary elections, so make plans to vote before 7 pm Friday if you’d like to avoid the long lines we’re expecting to see on Election Day, March 3.

Our partners in the Texas Educators Vote coalition would like to remind you that by voting, you pick the people who decide how much to fund public schools; how much the state will rely on standardized testing; whether to use A-F ratings and how grades are determined; how much to fund teacher pay, healthcare, and retirement; and whether to invest in our schools or privatize them. You can be a voice at the polls for the over 5.4 million kids in Texas public schools, most of whom are not old enough to vote, model good citizenship for students, move Texas up from being last (or almost last) in voter turnout, strengthen democracy by being an engaged citizen, exert your power at the polls, and practice what you preach — if first grade students are learning the importance of voting, you should, too!

According to data from the Texas Secretary of State’s website, as of the fifth day of early voting, 322,541 Texans had voted in Texas’ top 10 counties for voter registrations. News outlets report that figure as an increase of 30.7% from the number who had voted by the fifth day of early voting in the 2016 primaries.

Statewide 1,394,488 Texans had cast a ballot by Feb 26, the eighth day of early voting, including 762,290 Republicans primary voters and 632,198 Democratic primary voters.  Texas election data researcher Derek Ryan found that, 20% of those who voted in the Democratic primary through day eight of early voting had voted in a previous general election but were likely voting in a primary for the first time. The share of likely first-time primary voters is greater than Democrats saw in 2018 (18%) and in 2016 (17%). In the Republican primary, 12% of early voters this year had voted in a general election but not in a recent primary. So far, slightly more men than women have voted in the Republican primary, while more women than men have voted in the Democratic primary this time around.

On Feb. 26, the Texas Tribune updated its “hot list” of the most competitive Texas primary races. There are 20 Texas House districts on the list, including five races that earned the distinction of being listed among the “hottest” races in the state. Those five are as follows:

  • In House District (HD) 2, the Republican primary features incumbent Rep Dan Flynn (R-Van) being challenged by Bryan Slaton and Dwayne ‘Doc’ Collins. Slaton challenged Rep. Flynn in the 2018 primary and nearly defeated him.
  • In HD 59, the Republican primary is between incumbent Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville) and challengers Cody Johnson and Shelby Slawson. Rep. Sheffield, a physician, has been endorsed by pro-public education groups like Texas Parent PAC and received campaign contributions from a number of medical associations. Johnson has loaned his own campaign over $1 million as of his last ethics filing.
  • The crowded race to replace infamous Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who is not running for re-election in HD 92, has contested primaries on both sides of the aisle. In what has become a closely watched swing district, both parties hope to put forth the candidate who will ultimately prevail in November. The Republican primary candidates are Jeff Cason, who also ran for the seat in 2018 and is one of relatively few candidates to be endorsed this year by Empower Texans; Taylor Gillig, and Jim Griffin, who received endorsements from Texas Parent PAC and Gov. Greg Abbott. The Democratic primary is a contest between Steve Riddell, who came close to toppling Stickland in 2018, and Jeff Whitfield, whom the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram endorsed. There are also two third-party candidates who will be on the ballot in November.
  • In the Republican primary in HD 132, former Rep. Mike Schofield faces Angelica Garcia. Each candidate is vying to unseat freshman Rep. Gina Calanni (D-Houston) in November. Rep. Calanni defeated then-incumbent Schofield in 2018, flipping the seat from Republican to Democrat that year.
  • Finally, in the Democratic primary in HD 148, newly elected Rep. Anna Eastman (D-Houston) is defending the seat she won just last month in a special election. Her primary challengers include Adrian Garcia, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla, Emily Wolf, and Penny Morales Shaw. While Eastman is now the incumbent, former Rep. Jessica Farrar, who resigned from the seat after last session, is backing Morales Shaw. A Republican challenger who also ran in the special election will be on the ballot in November, too.

Also of note is the sole Texas Senate race to make the Texas Tribune‘s hot list. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a 30-year incumbent, is facing two challengers in the Democratic primary in Senate District 27. One is State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville)., who also received an endorsement from Texas Parent PAC, and the other is Brownsville lawyer Sara Stapleton Barrera.

A new presidential poll released this week by Public Policy Polling and commissioned by Progress Texas shows Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden tied at 24% as the top choice of Texas Democrats. Michael Bloomberg follows at 17%, with Elizabeth Warren at 14%, and Pete Buttigieg at 10%.

With early voting coming to close, ATPE encourages everyone to take a moment to research the races in their local districts and go vote!

Primary Colors: Why March 3 Matters (Part II)

In 2020, being a primary election voter is critical. ATPE explains why in Part II of our “Primary Colors” blog feature.

After what many folks have hailed as one of the most productive legislative sessions for public education in recent memory, it may be easy for educators to think, “Great! We fixed it!” After all, legislators increased state spending on public education and ordered districts to use some of that money to increase educator compensation. All good things, right?

But a new fight is imminent.

In statistics, there is a phenomenon called “reversion to the mean.” In broad terms, it states that an extreme event in a sequence will generally be followed by a less extreme event. If we look in the context of the past several legislative sessions in which legislators attacked teachers and tried to defund public schools by passing school vouchers, then the 2019 session was an an extreme outlier. Statistically, we should expect that the 2021 legislative session will revert back to the mean — which until recently has often ranged from indifference to open hostility towards public education. That’s especially relevant regarding politicians who actively fought against public schools and educators before the 2019 session.

If you’re still skeptical, just look at the last couple of weeks. In last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump renewed the push to pass private school vouchers that would defund public schools. The federal voucher legislation the president promoted was filed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas. Consider that and the fact that the chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Texas is none other than Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who also attempted to push a voucher bill through the Texas Legislature many times, as recently as 2017. Looking ahead to the next legislative session, the prospect of a renewed fight over vouchers in 2021 appears all but certain.

There’s also new evidence that legislators fully intend next session to attack educators’ right to use payroll deduction to voluntarily support associations that advocate for public schools at the Texas Capitol. This type of legislation, such as the bills pushed by lawmakers in 2017, threatens educators’ ability to have a voice in crafting public education policy in state as large as Texas. This fight will likely be compounded by a major push to restrict the ability of local communities — through their school districts, towns, counties, and first responders — to advocate for local issues at the Texas Capitol. Many capitol watchers point to these moves as part of a plot by certain special interests to ensure their own exclusive access to lawmakers by closing the doors of state government to the viewpoints of working people and communities.

And then there’s House Bill (HB) 3. The school finance bill passed last year added just enough money to the public education system to get the overall level of state funding close to where it was back before the legislature’s drastic budget cuts of 2011. Much more is needed in order to drag Texas out of the bottom of the barrel of U.S. states in terms of per-pupil spending. But before that happens, legislators have to make sure the funding they added through HB 3 in 2019 doesn’t go away. For all its merits, the school finance bill did not include a long-term funding source to ensure that HB 3 funding would be available into the future, and legislators in 2021 will have to decide whether to find permanent funding or cut back school spending, jeopardizing any increases to educator compensation in the process.

Speaking of compensation, did you see a raise in your paycheck this year? School districts were required to pass on some of that additional HB 3 funding to certain educators in the form of increased compensation. However, the rules guiding how that additional money was to be doled out were vague enough to result in educators in different districts experiencing very different results. Cleaning up compensation questions and other unanticipated complications from HB 3 will be an important part of the next legislature’s job.

The successes of the 2019 legislative session came only as a result of the resounding message educators sent by showing up to vote in record numbers in 2018. Because of our state’s extensive political gerrymandering, the majority of the races in 2018 were decided in the March primaries. That means educators who voted in the March 2018 primaries made a pro-public education legislative session possible in 2019.

The only way we will prevent the 2021 legislative session from reverting to the mean is if educators return to the polls this year in the same massive numbers as in 2018, and that begins with making sure everyone is a 2018 primary voter. There are plenty of resources out there to find out how and where to vote, including those provided by ATPE and our other partners in the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition. You can begin by researching candidates right here at TeachtheVote.org and then sharing the information you find with your friends and family. We made history in 2018, but we will lose all the progress we made if we take our foot off the gas in 2020. This is especially true in races where a single political party dominates the district, as ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell pointed out in Part I of this blog series for Teach the Vote.

It is more important than ever to be a Texas primary voter in 2020. Texas public school students depend on it!