Tag Archives: Speaker of the House

From The Texas Tribune: How the Texas Legislature will operate next year is up in the air

It’s unclear what typical functions at the Texas Capitol will look like in January, or whether they will even exist. Credit: Austin Price for The Texas Tribune

The Texas Legislature meets in less than 100 days. Nobody knows how the session will look.

The Texas Capitol is a bustling place when the Legislature is in session — the elevators are crowded, the hallways are packed, the committee hearing rooms are overflowing and the chamber floors are covered with state lawmakers.

But with less than 100 days until the 87th regular session and the coronavirus pandemic still upending once-regular ways of life, it’s unclear what typical functions at the Capitol will look like in January, or whether they will even exist.

That uncertainty this close to the session could have ramifications for what members say will be one of the toughest legislative sessions in recent years: tackling billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget, undergoing the process of redrawing the state’s political maps, and navigating issues like health care and public education that have been a focus during the pandemic.

On top of that, the Capitol has been closed to most everyone for months, prompting questions about the access that the public will have to the legislative process.

Senate and House members spearheading logistical discussions say that while much remains up in the air, the two chambers are working together to implement session rules that are consistent for both chambers. With wildly different dynamics in the 31-person Senate and the 150-person House, though, some suggest that the two chambers may not end up on the same page.

“Our primary concern is safety, transparency and public access,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who serves as vice chair of the House Administration Committee. “There’s so much up in the air.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chair of the committee, said the House is “in conversation with the lieutenant governor’s office,” but noted that “until there’s a presumed speaker, we don’t have a lot of guidance” in the lower chamber.

To Geren’s point, there’s only so much the House can do to prepare for the next session when its speaker is retiring and control of the lower chamber could flip to Democrats in November. There aren’t any declared candidates yet in the race to replace Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. However, if a member collected the votes needed to win before January, they could become the presumptive speaker and informally lay the groundwork on what protocols would be in place.

On the Senate side, rumors have lingered for weeks over what Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has told senators to expect come January. On a recent call with Senate chairs, according to several people who had knowledge of the call but weren’t authorized to speak on the record, Patrick outlined a worst-case scenario that involved limiting the legislation allowed for consideration and banning the public, press and lobbyists from entering the chamber.

A senior adviser for Patrick declined to comment for this story. And state Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who chairs the Senate Administration Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some decisions have already been made. Plexiglass dividers have been installed in several House committee hearing rooms, Geren said. Such barriers, he said, won’t be installed on the 150 House floor desks in the chamber after a trial run with a couple of them because they would interfere with the light used by new mobile sanitizing machines, as The Dallas Morning News first reported. House and Senate offices have also offered free webcams to offices in preparation for conducting more business virtually.

The Legislature, though, still faces a list of seemingly never-ending questions: Should temperature checks or some other form of screening be required before people enter the building? How can the House spread out 150 desks on the chamber floor — and will press and essential staff still be allowed on it? How can the public testify on legislation in committee hearing rooms, particularly on measures that generate a lot of interest?

Buoying those questions are layers of uncertainty about whether the virus will spike this winter, whether a vaccine will be available — and accessible — and, heading into the November election, whether Democrats will have control over the House, which could mean a change in leadership style to counter the GOP-controlled Legislature.

In August, Geren sent members results from a House survey over how and when the Capitol should reopen. Not every member responded, but those who answered questions about requiring temperature checks upon entering the Capitol and requiring face masks while inside committee rooms and public meeting spaces overwhelmingly supported those measures.

Howard told the Tribune that members are considering different sorts of screening protocols for how the public enters the Capitol but that no decisions have been made on what that could look like.

Since mid-March, the Capitol has been closed to the public, preventing members from holding interim committee hearings inside the building with public testimony. Those hearings are usually scheduled to help members consider or research business that could come up during the next session.

On Monday, hearing notices were posted for Senate Higher Education and Education interim committee hearings, both of which are set to happen next week. Each notice states that access to the Capitol “is limited to legislators and staff only” — and that only invited testimony will be allowed. “Invited testimony will be conducted via video-conference,” the notices say.

As a sort of workaround in the House, the speaker’s office released a memo in July detailing three options for how to conduct committee business while also adhering to lower-chamber rules, which do not allow for virtual hearings. Some committees have carried out interim business following that guidance.

Still, Democrats and Republicans have called on Gov. Greg Abbott, who oversees the Capitol, to reopen the building in recent weeks, arguing that if in-person fundraisers and public schools can resume, so can interim committee hearings. Such requests have gone unanswered publicly, and a spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment for this article. A spokesperson for the State Preservation Board also declined to comment.

“It certainly looks like we’re not going to have anything open before session starts,” Howard said. “We’ve really had no opportunity to have interim hearings, which has been extremely frustrating.”

State Rep. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican who chairs the House Redistricting Committee, said that “right now, we’re just locked out” — and added that it’s his “strong preference” that the Capitol reopen as soon as possible.

“I think it’s time now,” he said.

In the meantime, some members are already mapping out what office-specific guidelines they may issue for the 87th session. While most members say they are waiting to finalize those plans until closer to January, a number of them have already laid out protocols.

State Rep. Jon Rosenthal’s office, for example, has established a set of guidelines that staff and the lawmaker “will adhere to independent of rules and procedures the House Administration Committee provides the members for the 87th Legislative session,” according to a memo from the Houston Democrat’s office and assuming he wins reelection.

Masks will be required to enter Rosenthal’s Capitol office, which will not allow more than six people inside at a time. Rosenthal and his staff, the memo says, will also be tested for the virus “a minimum of once per week.” And interns, should they be hired, will work from home unless “dramatic changes happen” to prevent the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican from Deer Park and a member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he and his staff “absolutely will not” mandate masks — and that his “office will be open to all just as it has been since I was first elected.”

“It won’t bother me if visitors want to wear [a mask], I’m not going to make them take them off,” Cain told the Tribune. “In 2017 or 2019, if someone wanted to wear a mask, I would not have cared.”

Another Republican, state Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont, said his office is considering limiting staff and the number of visitors allowed in the office at one time. He said his office is also thinking about trying to move meetings online, though no decisions have been made yet. Across the rotunda, state Sen. Borris Miles’ staff members said they have already installed a plexiglass shield at the front desk in the Houston Democrat’s office.

Meanwhile, a group of House Democrats including state Reps. Joe Moody of El Paso and John Turner of Dallas have spent the past several months working on a governance platform to add to the conversation about what the session should look like.

“Keep the ‘People’s House’ accessible to all who wish to safely participate,” read a line in a one-pager that was presented at the House Democratic Caucus’ recent virtual retreat. “Institute daily COVID checks for everyone entering the Texas Capitol,” reads another. Another one: “Propose penalties to discourage anyone from flouting pandemic rules.”

The pandemic has, of course, impacted other issues tied to the Legislature and its usual timeline. In addition to addressing the billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and other core issues during session, state lawmakers are also set to undergo the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps.

The pandemic has already halted several hearings that both the House and Senate redistricting committees had scheduled across the state during the interim. And, on top of that, King, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said the census data that helps lawmakers draw political maps is not expected to arrive until at least June — which could put the Legislature on track to work beyond the 140-day regular session.

“I think we’re headed for a special session on redistricting regardless,” King told the Tribune.

Others agree. At a virtual event in July, the lieutenant governor said the Legislature could be in session until at least September, citing the budget and redistricting.

“I’ve told my staff and I’ve told senators,” Patrick said, “don’t plan any vacations until maybe after Sept. 30 of next year.”


The Texas Legislature meets in less than 100 days. Nobody knows how the session will look.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 25, 2019

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting began this week for the Nov. 5 constitutional election. Voters statewide will be deciding whether or not to approve 10 proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as other local ballot measures. Voters in three House districts will also be electing a new state representative in a special election on the same day.

Early voting continues through Nov. 1. We at ATPE encourage all educators to vote in every election and take advantage of the convenience of early voting at any polling place in your area. Make a voting plan! Use the weekend to learn about what’s on your ballot, and then build and print a sample ballot to take with you to the polls. (Remember that cell phones aren’t allowed to be used in the voting booth!) For additional voting resources, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com.

In other election news, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) announced this week that he will not seek re-election in 2020, paving the way for the election of a new speaker in 2021. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on the announcement, which comes on the heels of a scandal involving a secret recording and allegations of bribery. Read more in this week’s election roundup post on Teach the Vote.


This week we wrapped up our blog series, “New School Year, New Laws,” in which ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier shared weekly highlights of many education bills passed by the Texas Legislature earlier this year. In the final installment this week, we’re looking at how school districts around the state are implementing the requirements under House Bill (HB) 3 to increase teacher compensation. Check out the compensation-related post here.

Next week, the House Public Education Committee will hold an interim hearing to examine the implementation of HB 3. The meeting on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, will feature invited testimony only. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote next week and follow us on Twitter for dispatches from the hearing.


 

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 24, 2019

We’re down to the final stretch of the 86th legislative session, and there’s been major breaking news about education bills in the last 24 hours. Here’s a look at this week’s headlines from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


Legislators have reached a deal on priority legislation to address school finance, property tax relief, and teacher retirement funding. The deal was announced in a press conference yesterday afternoon by, Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R-Houston), and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), along with the House and Senate conferees on House Bill 3 (Senators Larry Taylor, Donna Campbell, Jane Nelson, Kirk Watson, and Royce West and Representatives Dan Huberty, Trent Ashby, Diego Bernal, Mary Gonzalez, and Ken King). They happily announced that negotiations had concluded and a compromise had been made on the school finance bill, House Bill 3; the property tax bill, Senate Bill 2; and Senate Bill 12 pertaining to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

Architects of the compromise provided reporters with an explanatory flyer highlighting its elements, which can be viewed here, and ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell reported on the announced deal on our Teach the Vote blog yesterday, and we’ve got updated information about the bill posted on our blog today.

As of this Friday afternoon, the final conference committee reports on these bills had not been released to the public, so many of the finer details about the agreement remain unknown. Meanwhile, we know that the school finance bill raises the basic allotment, aims to reduce recapture by 47% over the next two years, and caps the rate of local school district property tax increases at 2.5% starting in the year 2021. The plan is said to raise the state’s share of education funding from its current level of 38% up to 45%.

The final version of HB 3 also aims to increase pay to some educators by providing additional funding to districts through a $140 million merit pay program and various other allotments. Teacher pay was another of Gov. Abbott’s emergency issues so declared earlier this session, along with school finance reform. To the extent that the compromise bill raises funding for school districts generally, HB 3 requires school districts to spend a significant portion of those increases to improve compensation. The final version of HB 3 does not include any across-the-board pay raise requirements, however.

The agreement on SB 12 is expected to raise the state’s contribution to the TRS pension program in order to make it actuarially sound and provide current retirees with a 13th check. While the amount of the 13th check will vary, it is believed that the average amount of this payment will be around $2,000. The state is also increasing funding for TRS-ActiveCare, which will help active school employees with their healthcare costs.

Check out our lobbyists’ latest comprehensive blog post here for more detail on what is in the final versions of these high-profile bills. As we enter the final days of the session, don’t forget to follow the Teachthevote.org blog and our Twitter account for the most up-to-date information about the bills.


Legislation aimed at improving school safety and providing for mental health interventions for students is one step closer to passing. The issue was one of the emergency items Governor Abbott declared during his State of the State address in January.

After dying on a technicality earlier this week, a major mental health bill, Senate Bill 10 by Rep. John Zerwas (R- Richmond), was brought back to life when major portions of it were grafted onto another bill late on the night of the House’s deadline for passing bills on second reading. The carrier bill is Senate Bill 11, this session’s major school safety bill. SB 10 which would create a Texas Mental Health Consortium of mental health professionals from universities and health care providers around the state in order to identify children with mental illness and connect them to resources. SB 11 requires more training for school resource officers and encourages teaching students about how to prevent domestic violence, in part.

Yesterday afternoon both the House and Senate voted to send the newly expanded SB 11 to a conference committee.


Aside from House Bill 3, another bill pertaining to student testing remains pending and is generating a lot of attention among educators this week. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that HB 3906 by Rep Dan Huberty (R – Kingwood) as amended by the Senate dramatically impacts STAAR and remains pending at this late stage of the session.

As originally filed, HB 3906 primarily broke what are large, single day, tests into smaller tests that could be administered over multiple days, with those days falling over a number of weeks or even months. All of the mini-tests would have to fit within the same time frame as the current STAAR test they are meant to replace. The goal was to reduce student stress, allow for the test to be closer in time to the content being taught, and make the information gleaned from the test more useful to students and teachers during the school year in which the test is given.

The Senate put a number of additional provisions into the bill. The most controversial provision is a move from third through eighth grade reading tests, which do not include an integrated writing test, to third through eighth grade language arts tests, which do include embedded writing tests. There are currently stand-alone writing tests in fourth and seventh grades. The new format could certainly be viewed as an increase of four additional writing tests.

There have been conflicting reports on tests that are required by federal law. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) does not require ANY state-level writing tests. In fact, the US Department of Education sent the Texas Education Agency (TEA) a letter informing the agency that Texas was out of compliance with federal law because it included two standalone writing tests as requirements.

In addition to the new writing tests proposed in HB 3906, the Senate also added the following provisions to the bill:

  • Third-grade STAAR results as disaggregated by Pre-K attendance to be added to the state’s early education report;
  • A prohibition against STAAR testing on a Monday;
  • A limit on multiple choice questions to no more than 75 percent;
  • State-developed benchmark tests;
  • A requirement to administer the vast majority of the STAAR test electronically by the 2022-23 school year, as well as a transition plan;
  • Creation of a new Assessment Advisory Committee; and
  • A study on STAAR testing.

Due in large part to what they see as in an increase in testing, parents and teachers alike have been calling on their legislators to oppose this bill. As a result, the House voted on a motion from Rep. Huberty to send HB 3906 to a conference committee today.

ATPE encourages those who are willing to continue advocating with regard to HB 3906 to consider calling out specific provisions, such as the additional writing assessments for deletion from the bill while recommending that more favorable components be passed into law. ATPE members are reminded that they can use Advocacy Central to easily contact their legislators by phone, email, or social media.