It’s another week and another round of election news in Texas.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) has been busy setting special elections to finish the unexpired terms of legislators who have decided to step down before the next election. Voters will decide who succeeds state Reps. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) and Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) on November 5, 2019, which is also the date of the state constitutional election. The winners of those two races will have to turn around and defend their seats in the 2020 elections next year.
In the meantime, another Democrat has filed to run against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the 2020 election. Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is a Latina organizer who started the Workers Defense Project and Jolt Texas, the latter of which aims to mobilize young Hispanic voters. Ramirez will join a Democratic field that already includes state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), former congressional candidate MJ Hegar, and former congressman and gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell.
Finally, Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) announced plans late last week to challenge state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), who has often sided with his Republican colleagues in the 31-member Texas Senate on issues such as school privatization. This sets up a potentially heated Democratic primary for the South Texas Senate district.
This November’s election will decide a number of important potential amendments to the Texas Constitution, including one relating to school finance. It is critical that educators stay engaged beginning this November and following through the party primaries in March 2020 — all the way to the November 2020 general election. Now is a good time to check if you’re registered to vote, which you can do by using resources put together by the Texas Educators Vote coalition of which ATPE is a member. Check out the coalition’s new website at TexasEducatorsVote.com.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has tried to kill several bills this session. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune
A major mental health bill prioritized by the state’s top leaders as a way to help prevent school shootings was partially revived late Tuesday night hours after it appeared to have been abruptly killed on a technicality during a dramatic night in the Texas House.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, raised a “point of order” on Senate Bill 10, which created a Texas Mental Health Consortium aimed at bringing together psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers to connect children to mental health services. Stickland’s point of order contended that an analysis of the bill provided to lawmakers was inaccurate. After the House recessed for nearly an hour and a half so parliamentarians could analyze the technicality, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, somberly announced a ruling in Stickland’s favor.
But hours later, provisions from SB 10 were added to Senate Bill 11, a school safety bill that the lower chamber passed earlier in the evening. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, sponsored SB 10 in the House and successfully amended it to SB 11 over Stickland’s objections shortly before a midnight House deadline to advance bills from the upper chamber.
SB 10 is one of several proposals that the state’s GOP leaders championed in the wake of the deadly shooting last year at Santa Fe High School. Gov. Greg Abbott named it an emergency item in his State of the State address earlier this year, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick designated it one of his 30 legislative priorities.
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the bill’s author, told senators earlier this year that it was her “best shot” at helping students in the aftermath of school shootings. It had bipartisan backing and cleared the upper chamber unanimously more than two months ago.
“I think it was a well-intentioned bill that had some very bad unintended consequences,” Stickland told the Tribune by phone Tuesday night, an hour after his point of order initially knocked the bill out of contention. “I think it could have been stronger on parental rights to make sure our constitutional rights are protected in the bill.”
Asked if he was bracing for backlash from leadership over killing such a high-profile bill, Stickland said, “I expect it.”
Within a couple of hours, Stickland got it.
As it became clear Tuesday that Stickland’s point of order would torpedo the legislation, key players who worked on SB 10 moved quickly to figure out next steps. Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, walked across the Capitol rotunda into the Senate, where he spoke with Nelson, presumably about news of the bill’s fate.
“It’s unfortunate that there were some people who were getting some negative comments from their constituencies that felt the need to vote against this bill or somehow kill this bill,” Zerwas told the Tribune. “And one of those happened to be Jonathan Stickland, who’s pretty adept in finding points of order and calling them, and he wins some, he loses some, and unfortunately, he happened to win one with Sen. Nelson’s bill.”
Just before 11 p.m., state Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican and brother of the House speaker, made a motion to revive the mental health bill by amending a sweeping school safety bill passed earlier Tuesday. He offered a cryptic message that there was “an opportunity to do some additional work” in order to “further make safe our schools in the state of Texas.”
Stickland approached the chamber’s back microphone with questions.
“Is this something we’ve seen before?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Greg Bonnen said.
Stickland attempted to delay the motion, asking procedural questions about how the chamber was going to reconsider a portion of a bill that had already passed. He then gave a speech imploring colleagues not to reconsider SB 11, the school safety bill.
“Maybe you plan on voting for it, and that’s fine,” Stickland said. “But here’s what I can promise you: One day, there’s gonna be something that you care about where you might be in the minority. … You’re going to hope that these rules and our traditions and the way that this House operates protects you and your ability to stand up for your constituents.”
At one point, Stickland and a group of lawmakers huddled at the front dais to discuss his attempts to prevent adding the mental health provisions to the school safety bill.
“I’m sick of this shit,” Stickland could be heard telling Dennis Bonnen.
Zerwas eventually succeeded in reviving major elements of the mental health bill, despite two further attempts from Stickland to prohibit the amendment on technicalities.
Stickland has built a reputation for being a thorn in the side of House leadership, under both Bonnen and former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A former member of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, which he resigned from earlier this session, Stickland cast the lone “no” votes on several high-priority bills this year, including the House’s school finance reform proposal.
On a number of occasions this session, Stickland has tried to kill legislation ranging from the controversial to the uncontested. In April, for example, he successfully knocked several measures off of that day’s local and consent calendar, which is typically reserved for uncontroversial legislation. Stickland’s reasoning? Liberties were under attack.
On Monday, he used a point of order to successfully halt a bill that would have made it illegal to leave an unattended dog tied up in an inhumane manner. And earlier Tuesday, Stickland unsuccessfully called a point of order on SB 11, the school safety bill that would later be used as the vehicle to revive SB 10.
It was one of two school safety bills that advanced in the Legislature within hours of each other. The Senate also approved a House bill that would abolish the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.
The nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Texas last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for youth access to mental health care. According to its 2019 report, The State of Mental Health in America, 71.3% of youth in Texas with major depression go untreated, compared with the national average of 61.5%.
Acacia Coronado, Emily Goldstein, Alex Samuels, Patrick Svitek, Aliyya Swaby and Alexa Ura contributed to this report.
Senate Education Committee meeting April 16, 2019.
This week was a busy one for the Senate Education Committee. On Tuesday, the committee chose to postpone its originally posted hearing of the House’s school finance reform bill, House Bill 3. The committee postponed the hearing of HB 3 by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) in order to flesh out more of the Senate’s committee substitute for the bill. We expect HB 3 to heard later next week and are urging educators to reach out to their senators about the bill.
ATPE supported HB 3 as passed by the House almost unanimously. The bill was amended from its original version as filed to remove controversial language that would allow school districts to opt out of the the minimum salary schedule and fund merit pay that likely would have been tied to student test scores. ATPE encourages educators to contact their senators now and urge them to keep merit pay and other negative provisions out of HB 3 when it moves through the Senate. For additional information and direct communication links to lawmakers, ATPE members should visit Advocacy Central.
In lieu of HB 3, various other bills were discussed during Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, with topics ranging from sex ed to charter school regulation to accountability laws. The committee also voted to advance several bills, such as Senate Bill (SB) 1412 to allow a school at risk of closure to execute an accelerated campus excellence turnaround plan. For more on Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee hearing, read this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
The committee will meet again on April 23, 2019, to hear bills relating to school district funding and governance, student internships, staff development, and more. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for coverage of the hearing and announcements when HB 3 is scheduled for hearing.
On Wednesday, April 18, the full Senate passed a bill to further restrict the ability of school district employees and school board members to talk about political content at school.
SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) amends existing “political advertising” laws and was passed by a vote of 25 to 6. Senators who voted against the ATPE-opposed bill were Sens. Jose Menendez, Borris Miles, Beverly Powell, Kel Seliger, John Whitmire, and Judith Zaffirini.
During the Senate floor debate, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. amended the bill to add prohibitions on electioneering using school resources by charter school employees or governing board members. Charter schools had not been included in the original version of SB 1569 as filed. Sen. Fallon also agreed to amend the bill on the floor to strike language from the original version that would have prohibited school districts from being able to share information that factually describes the purpose of a bond measure and does not advocate for its passage or defeat.
SB 1569 no longer includes highly troubling language in its original version that would have prohibited school employees from advocating for or against “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” However, ATPE notes that the bill still includes overly broad language aimed at stifling political involvement by public school employees, contractors, or board members. SB 1569 as passed by the Senate greatly expands the existing definition of political advertising to include support or opposition for a candidate, political party, public officer, or measure that is “directed to an individual person or multiple persons through any form of communication.” While Sen. Fallon indicated during floor debate that he does not intend for his bill to prevent educators from talking to one another about politics, especially after school hours, the language of the bill itself as quoted above suggests otherwise.
SB 1569 as passed by the Senate would also subject public school employees to criminal penalties if they “facilitate” legislative advocacy by students. ATPE is disappointed that senators would support legislation to prevent educators from teaching students about the legislative process without fear of being arrested.
Now that SB 1569 has been passed by the Senate, ATPE urges educators to contact their state representatives and ask them to oppose this unnecessary anti-public education bill. ATPE members can visit Advocacy Central for additional information on SB 1569 and communication tools.
Other bills on the move this session that have garnered scrutiny from the education community include HB 281 by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville) and SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) relating to political subdivisions’ use of public money for lobbying activities. These bills would prohibit school districts from using public funds to pay for lobbying, whether by an employee of the district paid to lobby or an outside association that uses the public funds for activities that might include lobbying. Neither bill would affect the ability of school district employees to use their own personal funds to join associations, such as ATPE, that engage in lobbying activities.
Legislators, staffers, and stakeholders crowded a conference room Thursday, April 18, 2019, for a quick meeting of the House Public Education Committee to vote on bills.
The House Public Education Committee met twice this week to hear bills on topics such as civics education, bullying, and virtual schools.
During the committee’s first hearing on Tuesday, April 16, ATPE offered testimony on bills like HB 496 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) aimed at improving student safety by requiring a bleeding kit program in public schools. Read ATPE’s written testimony here. ATPE also testified against HB 429 by Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), which would expand virtual school programs that may not be efficient or of adequate quality. Read ATPE’s written testimony against HB 429 here. Other bills heard on Tuesday included the ATPE-supported HB 3133 by Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) that would allow school district employees to use their personal leave for compensation on school holidays.
The committee met again on Thursday, April 18, for a hearing that lasted until 11 pm and again featured discussions of a wide variety of topics. ATPE supported bills such as HB 414 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) calling for a Teacher Protection Act, HB 3403 by Rep. Phillip Cortez (D-San Antonio) to require school district employment policies to include anti-bullying measures for educators, and HB 3638 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco) to repeal certain laws identified as unnecessary or duplicative by a mandate relief working group on which ATPE served last year.
The committee also convened while the House was in session on Thursday to vote out additional bills, such as Rep. Gina Hinojosa’s HB 43 on charter admission policies and Rep. Diego Bernal’s HB 4242 calling for a study of the readability of STAAR tests.
Read more about the bills considered by the House Public Education Committee in this week’s comprehensive blog posts from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier here and here.
ATPE has long advocated for Texas lawmakers to increase funding of educators’ pension programs through the Teacher Retirement System (TRS). As we have been reporting throughout the session, the 86th Legislature is considering ATPE-supported bills to increase state contributions to the TRS pension fund and provide retirees with a 13th check.
In support of this ongoing effort, ATPE has joined forces with Equable, a national nonprofit organization that works to facilitate retirement plan sustainability and income security, to promote pension reforms this session that will address the TRS funding shortfall and help ensure that Texas educators have a stable retirement plan in the future. ATPE and Equable are urging educators to reach out to their legislators in support of bills like SB 12, which is scheduled for debate by the full House next week.
Learn more about our TRS-related advocacy and find additional resources at PayTheBillTX.org.
The one bill that the 86th Legislature must pass in order to avoid a special session – the state’s budget bill – is making further progress. Members of the House and Senate have voted to send HB 1 to a conference committee to iron out differences between the two chambers’ versions of the budget proposal.
On the House side, Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas will co-chair the conference committee joined by Reps. Greg Bonnen, Sarah Davis, Oscar Longoria, and Armando Walle. Senate conferees, which noticeably included no Democratic senators, are Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson plus Sens. Joan Huffman, Lois Kolkhorst, Larry Taylor, and Robert Nichols. The HB 1 conference committee has planned its first meeting for Tuesday, April 23.
Also sent to a conference committee was the legislature’s supplemental appropriations bill for the current biennium, SB 500. That bill’s conference committee is similarly co-chaired by Sen. Nelson and Rep. Zerwas. The other conference committee members for SB 500 are Sens. Huffman, Kolkhorst, Taylor, and Chuy Hinojosa, along with Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, Mary Gonzalez, Rick Miller, and Toni Rose.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.
Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.
The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.
“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”
The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.
The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.
“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”
Some of the more contentious budget proposals floated by lawmakers never reached the floor. An amendment from state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, for example, would have asked members to vote on the issue of across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers. Such a proposal has divided the Legislature this session, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate in favor and much of the House opposed. Raymond withdrew his amendment Wednesday evening, saying he planned to bring up the issue again when the House debates its school finance bill.
A proposal from state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, to prohibit disaster recovery dollars from benefiting noncitizens and “illegal aliens” was quietly withdrawn after sparking controversy earlier this week. Across the aisle, state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, withdrew her amendment that would have required Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to prepare a report on domestic terrorist threats posed by white supremacists.
Bonnen worked behind the scenes in the days preceding the vote, House lawmakers said, in the hopes of avoiding the discord that has erupted during the chamber’s marathon budget debates in past sessions. On Tuesday, top lieutenants for Bonnen met for a handful of informal gatherings to offer concessions in exchange for lawmakers dropping some of their more controversial amendments, according to people familiar with the meetings.
The result was one of the shortest budget debates in recent memory. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the two-year spending plan minutes after the clock struck midnight. Under former House Speaker Joe Straus, lawmakers in 2017 and 2015 went home well into the morning, after several explosive exchanges between Straus’ allies and the chamber’s hardline GOP membership.
“This budget night is unlike any other I have experienced in my time in the House — both in it’s shorter duration and civil tone,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and Freedom Caucus member, in a text message after the debate concluded. “I think Speaker Bonnen deserves the bulk of the credit for creating an environment of civility and decorum. This is how the Texas House should operate when debating the big issues for the state of Texas.”
So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.
Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”
Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.
In an earlier dustup just before 2 p.m., state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who led the House budget negotiations over health and human services programs, was seen in a heated exchange with state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.
A few minutes later, Leach proposed an amendment that would allow Texas to expand Medicaid coverage for women up to a year after they give birth. To cover some of the costs, Leach’s amendment recommended cutting $15 million from a program in Abbott’s office that reimburses film and video game makers who work in Texas.
Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage “is simply more important and should be a higher priority” than the film incentives program, Leach said.
Democrats gathered at the back microphone to oppose the motion, saying the funding should come from elsewhere.
“I appreciate that you’re trying to help women’s health,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who said she supported the film incentives as a job-creation program. “If we found another source, would you create another amendment?”
“I’m not going to agree to hypotheticals,” Leach replied. The amendment subsequently passed without a recorded vote after putting Democrats in the awkward position of voicing opposition to a Medicaid coverage expansion they otherwise supported.
A more ambitious Medicaid coverage expansion, which would have provided publicly funded health insurance to low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act, failed for a fourth legislative session. The Medicaid expansion amendment brought by state Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, was rejected with 66 votes in favor and 80 opposed.
Still, Democrats saw some wins Wednesday. For example, an amendment by state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, that would require the Department of State Health Services to conduct a study on vaccination rates among children at licensed child care facilities was approved in a 79-67 vote. Another successful amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, directs the state to come up with a transition plan for when a pot of federal health care safety-net funding, known as the 1115 waiver, dries up in 2021 and 2022.
Complicating budget negotiations was news of an updated property tax reform proposal, which was expected to be laid out in committee before the House convened but was instead postponed until after the budget debate. Debate over that updated proposal, which drew opposition from Democrats and hardline Republicans, carried over onto the floor as its author, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with committee members to discuss the high-priority legislation.
The debate on the HB 1 ended with a procedural move spearheaded by Turner and Burrows to wrap up the remaining amendments and send them to the wish list portion of the wish list portion of the budget. That section of the budget, known as Article XI, is considered a graveyard for most line items.
Passing an amendment to the wish list is “just a way to get you off the main,” state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, said in protest earlier in the evening, shortly before one of her proposals was shot down.
The two-year budget wasn’t the only spending plan advanced by the House on Wednesday.
Lawmakers also approved a $9 billion supplemental spending plan to pay for leftover expenses that aren’t covered in the state’s current two-year budget, mostly for Hurricane Harvey recovery and health and human services programs.
A $4.3 billion withdrawal from the state savings account covers the largest share of expenses in the supplemental bill. Another $2.7 billion comes from the state’s general revenue, and $2.3 billion are federal funds.
The legislation, Senate Bill 500, returns to the Senate, whose stopgap spending plan approved earlier this month carried a $6 billion price tag.
Lawmakers in 2017 underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, requiring a $4.4 billion infusion of state and federal funds. The Legislature must pass the stopgap funding bill before the end of May if the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is to be able to pay health care providers on time.
The supplemental bill also includes:
Nearly $2 billion to reimburse school districts, state agencies and universities for costs they took on after Hurricane Harvey
About $1.3 billion to shore up a system that pays out teacher pensions, contingent on the passage of a pension reform bill, which includes $658 million from the state savings account to provide a one-time “13th check” made out to retired teachers
Nearly $11 million for the Santa Fe Independent School District, which experienced a mass shooting last year that left 10 dead and 13 wounded
$2 million for state mental hospital improvements, which includes funding to plan the construction of new hospitals in the Panhandle and the Dallas area.
Today, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) shared his much-anticipated announcement of committee assignments for the 85th Legislature.
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.
POLITICAL AD PAID FOR BY THE ASSOCIATION OF TEXAS PROFESSIONAL EDUCATORS