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EduLege Tracker 5-28-19

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EduLege Update Volume VII, Number 36
May 28, 2019
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Thank God and Greyhound…

The 86th session of the Texas Legislature adjourned sine die on Monday, with ceremony, congratulatory resolutions, handshakes, hugs, a sense of accomplishment and the sweetest words imaginable after five-months—no special session in sight.

“Everyone is really tired, just physically and mentally tired,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick remarked, after gaveling the State Senate to a close for the final time.

Legislators convened back in January, promising to pump more state funds into public education while reducing the burden that’s placed on property owners to help pay for schools and other local services.

Between House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 2, Texas schools will receive a significant funding increase, and property owners will see modest, short-term cuts in school taxes. The Legislature also imposed a cap on how much tax revenue school districts, cities and counties can collect in new tax revenue without first asking local voters for approval.

Under HB 3—the education bill—teachers will receive a pay raise—although how much will vary widely depending on the district where they are employed and how much new money the district receives because of state funding changes. More money for teachers’ raises will also be available through a new statewide merit pay program.

For the first time ever, Texas is funding full-day pre-kindergarten for low-income families, and more money is being directed toward districts with a high percentage of poor students. Programs to help dyslexic students also received a significant state funding increase.

Under SB 2—the property tax legislation—cities and counties will have to ask for voter approval if they want to increase revenue by more than 3.5 percent from the previous year. Currently, local governments can increase revenue up to eight percent a year, without fear of an election.

Local officials strongly opposed the SB 3, saying 3.5 percent barely covers the cost of inflation, and will hurt their ability to pay for public safety.

It’s all in the packaging…

“Property Tax Relief. Recapture Reduction. Education Reform.”

That’s how Governor Greg Abbott and other state leaders are describing the final version of House Bill 3.

The omnibus school funding bill will cost the state $11.5 billion in new funding during Fiscal Years 2020-2021—increasing classroom spending by $4.5 billion; lowering property taxes by $5 billion, and increasing teacher salaries by $2 billion.

HB 3 also would lower the payments that property wealthy districts pay to subsidize property poor districts by $3.6 billion, or  47 percent.

Legislative approval became a foregone conclusion after Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion that an agreement on House Bill 3 had been reached.

With that, the Texas House voted 139-0, and the Senate voted 30-0, to approve the final negotiated version of HB 3.

The bill is projected to drop property tax rates for schools by an average of eight cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and by 13 cents per $100 valuation in 2021. Starting in 2021, school districts will be prohibited from collecting more than 2.5 percent in additional revenue generated from the major portion of its Maintenance & Operation property tax rate.

The initial projections released by the Legislative Budget Board show that virtually every Texas school district stands to receive more—some substantially more—under HB 3. Here are those projections for FY 2020 and for FY 2021.

Still, what was initially presented at the start of the legislative session as a transformational school funding plan—with a smaller amount of money earmarked for property tax relief—ended up being a bill that spends about equally on schools and tax relief.

“We are disappointed that our state leaders prioritized property tax breaks over long-term, sustainable support for the public schools our kids deserve,” said Ann Beeson, CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “This compromise bill flips the priorities, putting $4.5 billion toward classrooms and over $5 billion to tax breaks.”

Not $5,000, and not the national average…

Texas teachers won't be receiving that $5,000 pay raise that Lieutenant Governor Patrick promised following his narrow re-election victory last November. Instead, salary increases will vary from district to district.

In total, the Legislature agreed to spend $2 billion during the upcoming budget biennium for increased compensation for teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses, with priority on veteran educators. About $1.6 billion of the money has been earmarked for direct salary increases. The rest of the compensation increases comes in the form of merit and incentive pay—and retirement benefit increases.

Lieutenant Governor Patrick said a veteran teacher could expect to receive about $4,000 more a year in their “total compensation package.” However, it’s also important to note that figure includes the state’s increase in teacher retirement benefits.

The raises are tied to the state's increase to the basic student allotment, which increase from $5,180 per student to $6,160 in HB 3.

Thirty percent of the increase in the basic allotment is dedicated to pay raises—most of which must go to teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians. School districts are being told to weight the raises toward teachers who have at least six years of experience.

A quarter of the money designated for salary increases can be used for any full-time employee, which gives school districts flexibility to give even steeper teacher raises, or to bus drivers, teachers' aides, cafeteria workers or other school employees.

House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty, R-Humble, says the teacher merit pay plan contained in HB 3 is completely decoupled from student performance on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which was a major point of contention of most teacher groups and Democratic legislators.

After losing more than a dozen legislative seats in the 2018 Midterm Election—and barely hanging on to others—Texas Republicans promised that they would prioritize public education this session.

Thus, Texas becomes the latest—and now the largest state—to pour significant new dollars into classrooms and teacher salaries.

Teacher salaries in Texas are currently about $7,000 below the national average, according to the National Education Association.

Does disappointment loom?

So how much should Texas property owners expect their tax bill to shrink next year, once Governor Abbott signs SB 2 into law?

Maybe a little bit, tax experts say, but maybe not at all.

“No, taxes are not going to go down,” said Dale Craymer, President of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. “They’re not going to get a bill and see that it’s half of what it was last year.”

“A homeowner may get $400 of tax relief, but that’s against a property tax bill that may be rising $600,” Mr. Craymer said.

Vance Ginn, Senior Economist for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, agrees that many property owners are going to be disappointed.

“I don't think many people will see property tax relief,” Mr. Ginn said. “There's going to be a lot of upset Texans. I think there's been a lot of talk about property tax relief, and that has built up a lot of expectations.”

In January, Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and Speaker Bonnen held a news conference with House and Senate authors to unveil their priority legislation to cap local property tax revenue growth at 2.5 percent a year. (The cap was subsequently negotiated up to 3.5 percent for cities and counties.)

It was unveiled that day as the “Property Tax Reform and Relief Act of 2019.”

“Taxpayers are ready for this. They’ve been crying out for relief,” said State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the Senate author of the bill. “I’m honored to be a part of the leadership team that will make a difference for all Texas taxpayers.”

But by the time the bill got through the House, it had been rebranded.

House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, announced a new name: the “Texas Taxpayer Transparency Act,” focusing on the way the bill makes the tax process easier to understand.

When Chairman Burrows ushered the bill through the House vote, he stressed that no one should expect a tax cut.

“It was never designed to do that, and I’ve never promised anyone that it did,” he said on the House floor, unprompted.

Topping $250 billion…

The new State Budget that was approved by the 86th Legislature will spend over $250 billion on education, transportation, public safety, health care and other services in the next two years.

The spending plan—House Bill 1—is now being reviewed by Governor Abbott, who has until Sunday, June 16, to sign the budget and veto individual line items to which he objects.

“HB 1 is a conservative budget that pays for the needs of this state,” House Appropriations Committee Chair John Zerwas, R-Richmond, told his colleagues, as they voted nearly unanimously to approve state spending for Fiscal Years 2020-2021.

The $250.7 billion budget, funded with state taxes and fees, local property tax dollars and federal funds, marks a 16 percent increase over the two-year budget that was approved by legislators in the 2017 legislative session.  

The House approved HB 1 with just one “No” vote, from State Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. The Senate unanimously approved the budget.

In total, the section of the state budget that allocates funding for public schools, community colleges and universities totals $94.5 billion, an increase of 16 percent from two years ago.

The budget also includes $84 billion for health and human services programs, up just one percent from the current two-year budget cycle.

Legislators ordered a roughly $900 million cut to Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled that comprises most of the state’s health care spending. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission will be responsible for identifying cost-cutting measures. Additionally, legislators—as they always do—underfunded Medicaid’s expected costs, which will almost certainly require legislators to pass a supplemental spending plan in 2021 to pay leftover bills.

* * *

The Legislature didn't spend any money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund on the FY 2020-2021 budget. Instead, legislators authorized a record-breaking $6.1 billion withdrawal from the state savings account to help cover unpaid bills in the current Fiscal Years 2018-2019 State Budget.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says the supplemental budget will spend an additional $1.7 billion in state funds, mostly for leftover Medicaid and foster care expenses.

The money from the Rainy Day Fund will mostly pay for large-scale infrastructure projects and Hurricane Harvey recovery.

The Rainy Day account will also fund $100 million for Texas school districts to “harden” the environment at local campuses, such as doors with push bars and electric locks; metal detectors at entrances and better communication and security systems.

Legislators also proposed spending an additional $100 million from the Rainy Day Fund to help manage the “surge” of immigrants along the Texas-Mexico border. But at the last minute, both the House and Senate voted to strip that funding from the supplemental budget.

The supplemental budget does about $220 million in state funds to help Texas pay a financial penalty to the U.S. Department of Education for illegally decreasing funding for special education students.

Even after the current bills are paid, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar says the Rainy Day savings account will still total over $10 billion.

Kumbaya in the Key of B (as in Bonnen)…

For the most part, it truly was a kumbaya session—on most days, things proceeded in an almost-refreshingly dull fashion.

The sense of a job well done permeated the final days of the 86th legislative session.  

That was in stark contrast to the rancor that ended the session two years ago, when, in the midst of a protest in the House gallery over the then-newly signed law banning sanctuary cities, a confrontation erupted between legislators and ended with a Republican threatening to shoot a Democrat in self-defense.

The generally harmonious atmosphere this year was largely fostered by last November’s election that scared the Republican majority in both the Texas House and Senate and convinced them to focus on school finance and property taxes instead of student vouchers and which bathrooms transgender students could use.

The tranquility nearly fell apart late in the session, in the form of Senate Bill 22, which forbids local governments from partnering with Planned Parenthood, even for services that have nothing to do with abortion.

Then, the House passed legislation, largely along partisan lines, that LGBTQ advocates say perpetuates discrimination. The so-called Chick-fil-A bill forbids governmental entities from taking “adverse action” against individuals based on their religious affiliations.

Despite the ugly turn in the House, a group of Democratic legislators began talking to Speaker Bonnen, offering to withdraw delay-tactic amendments on the abortion-providers bill if he would consider leaving other divisive bills off the House calendar in the final week of the session. Nothing was guaranteed, but when deadline came, several of the bills the Democrats opposed were left for dead.

“That shows good leadership,” said State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who participated in the conversations. “The Speaker negotiated in good faith. We negotiated the best we could and saved this session from ending like last session.”

As he stepped off the dais for the last time Monday, Speaker Bonnen—serving his first term as the Presiding Officer of the House—reflected on the past 140 days:

“The House was just, you know, really nice with each other. We were. We showed great respect, but we definitely got into the issues. And we definitely had good discussions on the floor.”

There will be more in the Thursday, May 29, edition of EduLege on the bills that passed—and failed—as the 86th legislative session drew to a close.

Probably not the reaction for which they were hoping…

David Matheson, whose 22-year-old daughter was raped and murdered while she was a student at TCU, can’t believe that former Baylor football coach Art Briles, who was fired during a sexual assault scandal at the university in 2016, has been hired as the Mount Vernon High School Football coach.

“I find it beyond comprehension that you would hire a person who was so complicit in the institutional allowance of the sexual assault of so many young women,” Mr. Matheson wrote in an email to Mount Vernon superintendent Jason McCullough.

“Coach Briles knew about the sexual assaults that took place on his watch. Coach Briles actively engaged in trying to cover up those sexual assaults,” Mr. Matheson wrote Superintendent McCullough. “Coach Briles turned a blind eye to the victims’ screams for help. And this is the guy you are going to put in charge of influencing young men? Shame on you and your school board.”

Mount Vernon announced, going into the Memorial Day weekend, that Mr. Briles had received a two-year contract to coach the high school football team this fall.

“High school football is a Texas institution. As a coach, it's my first love," said Coach Briles, who coached at Georgetown and Stephenville high schools before entering the college ranks.

Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault survivor who now speaks on sexual violence to college teams, was also critical of Mount Vernon’s hiring of Mr. Briles.

"Yes, Art, the Baylor rape survivors are very aware of your impact on young lives," Ms. Tracy tweeted. "While you've been UNAPOLOGETIC & only concerned with coaching again, they've been living out your nightmare influence & will do so for the rest of their lives.”

Mr. Briles was fired on May 2016, following a school investigation into the football program. Baylor president Ken Starr was also reassigned and eventually left the university.

Baylor regents said that the investigation revealed 17 sexual assaults or cases of domestic violence by 19 players from 2011 to 2016, including four gang rapes. A claim in a civil lawsuit placed the numbers much higher. 

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.