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EduLege Tracker 5-23-19

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EduLege Update Volume VII, Number 35
May 23, 2019
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

All eyes on the conferees…

There are fewer than four days remaining for the Texas Legislature to complete its work. Or look at it another way—only about 80 hours remain until the 86th legislative session will adjourn sine die.

There’s still no State Budget for Fiscal Years 2020-2021. Doubts persist about whether the Texas House and Senate can reach agreement on the promised school finance overhaul. And conferees are still trying to hammer out the property tax controls that Governor Greg Abbott has made his top legislative priority.

All three issues—and other critical legislative proposals—remain lodged in different House-Senate conference committees, with the Legislature facing a mandatory midnight Monday adjournment.

State Budget: The state's two-year budget plan—House Bill 1—calls for spending roughly $250 billion on such priorities as public school funding, teacher salaries and early childhood intervention programs. House and Senate conferees have been working to iron out differences since April 9. Both chambers may be asked to approve the compromise state spending bill as early as Friday.

Property Tax Controls: Senate Bill 2 would require voter approval if school districts and other local jurisdictions want to increase their property tax revenue. Exactly which taxing jurisdictions would be affected—and how large of a tax rate increase would trigger a rollback election—has not been decided. SB 2 has been in conference committee since May 1.

School Finance Reform: House Bill 3 would be a complete overhaul of Texas public school finance. It increases per-student funding, expands pre-kindergarten and reduces the state’s reliance on so-called property rich school districts sharing their revenue with poor schools. The session-long impasse between the House and Senate over teacher salaries remains the big sticking point. HB 3 has been in conference committee since May 6.

Teacher Pension: Senate Bill 12 would make the pension fund that is managed by the Texas Retirement System financially sound, although the two legislative chambers have addressed the issue in different ways. Both would increase state contributions and give retirees a one-time additional check, but the Senate version would require that school districts and educators also increase their contributions to the fund. Conferees have been trying to resolve the differences since April 25.

SB 10 + SB 11 = 1…

One of the Legislature’s most-conservative House members this week nearly killed the bipartisan bill that was written in response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School last May—and which is intended to provide better mental health services to Texas students.

Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, temporarily blocked the bill on a procedural point of order, saying, in defense of his maneuver, “It did not respect parental rights.”

Senate Bill 10 appropriates $100 million to create a consortium of universities and medical professionals to better connect Texas students with mental health services, expand telemedicine for students and encourage more research into suicide prevention. 

Representative Stickland raised his objection to SB 10 as it was about to be considered on the House floor, arguing that the official analysis of the bill was inaccurate. After the House recessed for nearly an hour and a half so parliamentarians could analyze the technicality, Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, somberly announced a ruling in favor of Representative Stickland.

However, Representative Stickland’s “victory” was short-lived. Several hours later, Representative John Zerwas, R-Richmond, proposed that the House resurrect provisions of SB 10 by adding the language to another measure that members had initially approved earlier in the same day: Senate Bill 11—which is designed to improve the safety of schools by “hardening” campus security.

Representative Stickland immediately challenged the counter-maneuver of tacking SB 10 onto SB 11, and tensions again flared, as members gathered around the Speaker’s desk, to argue their case. Representative Stickland was overheard cursing.

However, this time, Speaker Bonnen ruled in favor of the SB 10-SB 11 “mash-up,” telling Representative Stickland in a raised voice, “You’re wasting time.”

Representative Stickland has earned a reputation for being a thorn in the side of House leadership under both Speaker Bonnen and former Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.  He has cast the lone “No” votes on several high-priority bills this year—including the House version of the omnibus school finance bill.

What SB 11 does…

Following final House passage, Senate Bill 11—which now includes the mental health provisions of Senate Bill 10—must go back to the State Senate to accept the changes, before it can be forwarded to Governor Abbott for his signature.

SB 11 appropriates over $500 million to Texas school districts over to spend on new school safety measures.

The bill “improves school safety at each campus in the State of Texas. This legislation is inspired by the students, the faculty and the staff at Santa Fe High School, and I’d like to thank them,” said Representative Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who sponsored the legislation.

The bill would give school districts about $50 more per student, for a total cost to the state of $531 million over the next two years, to improve school infrastructures, purchase more security cameras and hire more peace officers and mental health personnel, among other expenses.

It also would require that school districts create multihazard emergency plans, use trauma-informed emergency medical practices, include substitute teachers in safety training sessions required for district employees and require that each classroom have access to a telephone or communication device.

During the House committee hearing on SB 11, Flo Rice, who was wounded in the Santa Fe High shooting, recounted how a fellow substitute teacher couldn’t lock a classroom door, allowing the shooter to enter. Students hid in a closet, pinning the door closed with their arms and legs. Unable to dial 911 from a classroom, another substitute teacher had to pull a fire alarm to alert the rest of the campus, Ms. Rice said.

Guns in school. Guns at church. Guns at the Red Cross shelter…

The Texas Senate has (again) voted to abolish the cap on how many trained administrators, teachers and support staff—known as School Marshals—can carry guns on public school campuses.

Under the Marshal program, school personnel, whose identities are kept secret from all but a few local officials, are trained to act as armed peace officers in the absence of law enforcement. Currently, schools that participate in the program can only designate one marshal per 200 students or one marshal per building.

The legislation—House Bill 1387—would remove that limit, a move that Senate sponsor Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, says will make it easier for smaller school districts to participate in the state program.

The bill passed 20-11, with only State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, bucking his party to support the measure. Since the House already approved the legislation, the bill now goes to Governor Abbott.

Advocacy groups are wary of increasing the number of guns in Texas classrooms.

“If we put an unlimited number of guns in our schools, we’re only creating an unlimited number of potential mistakes that could harm our children,” said Hilary Whitfield, with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

HB 1387 is the only School Marshall legislation to be approved by the Legislature this session.

The Senate passed a bill by Senator Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, that would allow local school boards to authorize their Marshals to carry concealed guns on campus, instead of being required to keep them locked up.

But that bill failed to gain any traction in the Texas House.

* * *

More than a year after a gunman killed 26 worshipers at a church in Sutherland Springs, the Texas House has passed the Senate bill that would allow licensed handgun owners to legally carry their weapons in places of worship.

The legislation—Senate Bill 535 by Senator Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels—strikes a provision in current state law that says handguns aren’t allowed in “churches, synagogues or other places of worship.”

Churches would still be able to prohibit licensed citizens from carrying firearms on their premises, so long as they provide oral or written notice.

SB 535 now goes to Governor Abbott.

* * *

The Senate has voted to allow people to carry guns without a license during disaster evacuations. Now, the bill goes back to the House, where members will decide whether to accept the changes made in the Senate.

Safe. For another two years…

Members of the Texas House have voted to kill the Senate-passed bill that would have prohibited school districts and other local taxing jurisdictions from advocating on certain issues being considered by the Legislature.

The bill failed in the House by a vote of 58-85.

Senate Bill 29 by State Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and State Representative Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, would have prohibited cities, counties and school districts from using public funds to indirectly or directly influence legislation regarding taxes, tax-supported debt, bond elections or public servant ethics and transparency.

House members amended the bill on the floor to exempt school districts and counties with populations less than 250,000 from the measure—the latter against Representative Middleton’s wishes.

As debate then continued, it was clear that House support for the the amended SB 29 was fading, as questions arose regarding what the bill would actually do and how different government entities would be affected.

The bill originally passed the Senate 19-12 last month, with State Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, joining 18 Republicans to approve SB 29, and State Senator Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, joining the remaining 11 Democrats to oppose the legislation. Yet in the House, 25 Republicans joined 60 Democrats to vote against the bill. Only three Democrats voted for it.

Want to know how your state representative voted? Click here.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick—who considered the legislation one of his top priorities for this legislative session—criticized House Republicans who voted against the bill, claiming that lobbyists who were observing from the House Gallery cheered its defeat.

“That is one of the reasons next session that we will pass that bill,” Lieutenant Governor Patrick forewarned.

The magic number is 21…

If Governor Abbott signs Senate Bill 21 into law, Texas will become the latest, and the most populous, Southern state to embrace so-called Tobacco 21, or “T21” legislation.

The State Senate has agreed to House changes, and sent to the governor, the bill which would raise from 18 to 21 the legal sales age for cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. The bill includes an exemption for military personnel who are under the age of 21.

Voting against SB 21 on final passage were Republican State Senators Brian Birdwell of Granbury, Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, Pat Fallon of Frisco and Angela Paxton of McKinney.

State Representative John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the respective House and Senate authors of SB 21, found support for their legislation from health advocates, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, as well as a new ally—the nation’s largest tobacco manufacturer, Altria Client Services, Inc., the manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes and other products.

The Senate didn’t have time…

The House-approved plan to stop Texans from having to change clocks twice a year—and allow them to pick either Daylight Saving Time, or Central Standard Time, year-round—is dead for the 86th legislative session, thanks largely to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

State Representative Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, says that he is “very disappointed” that his proposal was “summarily dismissed by the Senate,” over which Lieutenant Governor Patrick presides.

Though Representative Larson's proposed constitutional amendment, and an enabling bill, easily passed the Texas House last month, the idea of allowing voters weigh in on clock changes never gained traction in the Senate.

Lieutenant Governor Patrick never referred Representative Larson’s legislation to a Senate committee for consideration.

Also, Senate State Affairs Committee Chairwoman Joan Huffman, R-Houston, bottled-up two Senate-authored measures.

One, by Senator Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, would have abolished Daylight Saving Time in Texas. The other, by Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would have allowed voters to decide whether they wanted to keep or ditch Daylight Savings Time.

Chairwoman Huffman never gave either bill a committee hearing.

Playing “Chicken.” And other games…

A bill that has been cast by conservative legislators as a necessary protection for religious freedom—but which liberals have attacked as blatant discrimination against LGBT people—is now one step closer to Governor Abbott’s desk.

Senate Bill 1978 arose from the city of San Antonio's vote to boot Chick-fil-A from the airport, based upon its charitable donations to certain Christian organizations.

With final House passage, the so-called “Save Chick-fil-A” bill heads back to the Senate for final approval of a House amendment. Then it goes to the governor for his signature or veto.

* * *

After receiving final approval from the Senate, the Legislature has sent to the governor the bill that would eventually outlaw red-light cameras in Texas.

Other much-discussed legislation now appears dead for this session:

  • Senate Bill 9, the controversial election bill that opponents say would suppress voter participation—especially among minorities—was never scheduled for debate in the House.
  • Likewise, the package of bills that sought to limit Texas cities’ ability to regulate private companies’ employment policies—like mandating paid sick leave for employees—never made it on to a House calendar.
  • The bill that would have made it more difficult to remove public statues—and rename schools and buildings that are named for Confederate-era figures—also died in the House.

The 86th session of the Texas Legislature will adjourn sine die next Monday—Memorial Day. The next EduLege—a legislative wrap-up edition—will be distributed on Tuesday, May 28.                                                                                            Andy 

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.