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EduLege Tracker 4-13-15

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EduLege Update Volume III, Number 23
April 13, 2015
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Collision course…

It would be an understatement to simply say that the Texas House and Senate are on a collision course when it comes to eventually approving a 2016-2017 State Appropriations Bill—unless you want to include, in the comparison, two locomotives steaming towards each other on the same track. 

There are many differences emerging in the two documents, particularly on how much new state revenue to spend on public education, transportation, border security, repairs to state facilities and for tax cuts. 

In fact, the two budgets are “farther apart” than in past legislative sessions, according to Eva DeLuna Castro, a former state budget analyst who now works for the Center for Public Policy Priorities. 

“Not just in the content—like the amount of money that’s there—but the way it’s being done,” Ms. DeLuna Castro said of contrasts to the two versions of the budget. 

Negotiations over funding for public education could prove challenging for House and Senate budget negotiators later this session, once both versions of the next State Budget are finalized. 

House lawmakers are bragging that their version of the state budget, approved overwhelmingly prior to an Easter break, includes $2.2 billion in additional money for public schools beyond what’s required because of student enrollment growth. That is thanks to higher-than-expected local school property tax revenue.  

Across the Capitol rotunda, the State Senate has focused more on advancing state tax credits to subsidize private school tuition, rather than freeing up additional money for public school classrooms.   

While both chambers have called for property and business tax cuts, the Senate has made "tax relief" a higher priority than education funding. Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has proposed to add $1.2 billion in “new money” to public schools.

The Senate is scheduled to debate its version of the 2016-2017 State Appropriations Bill this week.

A primer… 

State legislators continue to keep a close eye on the price of crude oil, as they proceed to finalize a new Appropriations Bill, and consider various tax relief measures. Why?

Dick Lavine, a true state finance guru with the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities, sums it up nicely: 

“For every billion dollars that oil and gas production tax collections fall, the Foundation School Fund gets $250 million less, the Highway Fund loses $375 million and deposits in the Rainy Day Fund are $375 million less.” 

Click here to read more from Mr. Lavine’s easy-to-understand—and informative—blog. 

‘Irresponsible.’

The State Senate should restore public employee pension funds, and spend more money for roads, or hang their heads in shame, according to a maverick Republican legislator. 

Senator Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, says the State Senate’s proposed version of the two-year state budget leaves between $15 billion and $20 billion of state money unspent. 

Tapping those funds would require votes to draw down the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund or bust a state spending cap. In both houses of the Texas Legislature, most Republicans are reluctant to take such votes. 

Senator Eltife believes the full Senate was wrong to have passed $4.6 billion in tax cuts without having advanced “a permanent solution to transportation” problems, much less stopping a snowballing $7.5 billion of unfunded liability in the Employees Retirement System.

“My gosh, you can’t leave here with that money in the bank and not fix pensions—(it’s) irresponsible,” Senator Eltife maintains. 

Hardly fair…

A freshman member of the Texas House of Representatives is piggy-backing on Governor Abbott’s call for state ethics laws reform to promote one of the first bills he’s ever introduced: prohibiting school districts from using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbyists at the State Capitol.

House Bill 3219, by Representative Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, received its initial hearing before the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee. 

Representative Shaheen maintains that HB 3219 has Governor Abbott’s stamp of approval because “school districts should directly represent the needs of their communities before the Legislature, and not waste taxpayer resources on lobbyists.” 

According to state records, more than 50 Texas school districts currently hire professional Austin lobbyists, at a cost of more than $1.1 million. That does not include school associations that use a portion of dues paid by districts to hire their own lobbyists and consultants. 

Peggy Venable, Texas director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said most taxpayers don’t want their school tax money going to lobbyists. She said that “simply represents more education dollars that are not being spent on instruction and in the classroom.” 

But Dax Gonzalez with the Texas Association of School Boards says passage of HB 3219 would make it difficult for school districts to maintain a voice before the Legislature while policy is being crafted.

“This is money that has been entrusted to the school district to do with what they can to best serve their students,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “It’s important that educators have someone trying to communicate their voice to legislators.”

EpiPens…

Two years after an eight-year-old nearly died on campus from an allergic reaction to fire ant bites, the Austin School District is planning to have epinephrine injectors—or EpiPens—on every campus. 

Thanks to a grant from a pharmaceutical company out of Pennsylvania, AISD will provide EpiPens for all 129 campuses by next fall. The district has already ordered the injectors.

“Generally speaking, in Austin and across the US, we're seeing a growing number of cases with allergies and with severe allergies and food allergies and some of those kids are more likely to then suffer a severe allergic reaction that could be life threatening," said Austin school district Medical Director Stephen Pont. 

Each Austin campus will have two shots on hand, and they'll be placed where they're easily accessible. “I think they are a great resource, similar to AEDs, so that if we have emergencies, we have all the resources available to respond," Dr. Pont said. 

Senate Bill 66, authored by Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would require all Texas school districts to have epinephrine injectors on their campuses. SB 66 is one of the few bills to have already passed the State Senate, and is now awaiting action in the Texas House. 

Slow as molasses…

There are only 50 days until the 84th legislative session adjourns on Monday, June 1. That’s significantly less time than it sounds, because in less than a month, a series of House and Senate deadlines begins to take effect, killing-off hundreds of legislative proposals that haven’t already gained legislative momentum.  

So how hard has the Legislature been working this year? According to data compiled by the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas—basically a group of well-paid lobbyists—the State Senate has been especially unproductive since the session convened back on January 13.

PAAT tallied up the bills that have achieved certain benchmarks in the legislative process—voted out of committee, for example—and compared the results to the same point in the 2013 session. It turns out that the House is working at about the same pace as it always has. In 2013, there were 364 House bills that had been voted out of their committees by this point of the legislative session. This year, 362 House bills have been approved by committees, with most of them still awaiting floor debate.

But the State Senate, under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, is moving as slow as molasses. In 2013, the Senate had moved 432 bills from committees to the floor. This year, only 229 bills have worked their way through the committee process, a 47 percent decrease. 

The full House has now passed eight bills this session, as opposed to 10 in 2013. But the Senate had passed 276 bills by this same date in 2013—whereas only 98 have passed this year, a whopping 64 percent decrease. 

Second chance...

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has decided to give the 2,500-student La Marque School District in Galveston County a second chance. 

Commissioner Williams said he would not shut down the district in July, as he had previously ordered, but would wait to make a final decision until he sees the final results of La Marque’s student achievement and financial ratings for the 2014-2015 school year. 

"The Commissioner felt this would be a good way to give the district a chance to try to improve and address those issues that they're substandard in," said DeEttea Culbertson with the Texas Education Agency. 

La Marque received TEA’s lowest academic rating in three of the last four years (the state did not issue ratings in 2012). It also received a substandard financial rating for the 2011-2012 year.


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.

 

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