Opening Moves

I was leaving the Capitol yesterday evening when I saw Chairman Pitts standing outside his office. I asked him some questions about the timeline for the supplemental appropriations bill. He told me that the bill had to lay out for six days, so any action on it is likely to be thrown into next week. I asked him if he expected any opposition to the bill. He smiled, and it was clear that he does. I asked him if he thought the opposition might come from a Democratic amendment to restore the education spending cuts. Another smile.

Some comments about the supplemental: First, it requires a simple majority to pass. Second, it has to pass. The Legislature must pay for items that were not funded during the 2011 session. Democrats have 55 votes, so they have some leverage.

Then, after I returned home, I saw this press release in my e-mail inbox:

HOUSE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS’ STATEMENT ON SCHOOL FINANCE:WE MUST ACT NOW AND RESTORE FUNDING TO PUBLIC EDUCATION


Representative Yvonne Davis, Leader of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, released the following statement on behalf of the House Democratic Caucus today regarding Judge John Dietz’s ruling on Texas’s school finance system:

Judge John Dietz’s recent ruled [sic] that Texas’s school finance system is unconstitutional. This ruling reaffirms what the House Democratic Caucus has been saying for years. Our school finance system is broken! The Legislature most act now to fix it.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus strongly urge Attorney General Greg Abbott to accept the ruling. Texas school children should not be forced to wait for relief while the state pursues a lengthy and costly appeals process.

The House Democratic Caucus will continue to provide innovative solutions. In fact. Representative Donna Howard’s 2011 amendment funded enrollment growth, but it was rejected by the Republican majority. We know what is at stake and stand ready to work with our colleagues to find a permanent solution.

Rather than continuing with the Republican agenda of massive cuts to public education, the House Democratic Caucus stands poised to meet our constitutional obligations by providing quality education to all children. 

Today, the House Democratic Leader and Democratic members announce their intent to offer an amendment to the supplemental budget. This amendment will utilize the budget surplus and restore $5.4 billion in funding to public education that was cut last session as well as pursue ways to fund education this biennium.

The House Democratic Caucus remains committed and ready!

Democrats have signaled their intention to offer an amendment to restore the spending cuts. The debate on the supplemental will be a baptism by fire for the large contingent of freshmen and sophomore Republicans. That’s a $5.4 billion spending bill. Even pro-school Republicans are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place. If they vote to restore the cuts, they can be attacked as big spenders. If they vote against the Democrats’ amendment, they can be attacked as anti-education.

Charters v. PEG

As most readers know, one of the battles of the 83rd Legislature is likely to occur over the use of public funds for private schools. Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Senator Dan Patrick are backing the proposal. (At a recent Texas Tribune event, Speaker Straus urged caution on the issue.) The rationale for the use of vouchers is that students should not be stuck in failing schools, a proposition that is hard to argue with.

What many lawmakers may not know is that the Texas Education Agency has a school choice program intended to ensure that no student is stuck in a failing school. The program is called PEG, short for Public Education Grants. PEG permits parents to request that their children in failing schools be allowed to transfer to schools in other school districts after meeting a set of requirements. A “failing school” is defined as one in which 50% or more of students did not pass any of the TAKS and STAAR subjects in two of the three preceding years, or any school that was rated “academically unacceptable” in 2010 or 2011.

The Plot Against Public Education

As we all know, thanks to R.G., shots were fired at yesterday’s weekly statewide bigwig breakfast meeting, with Dan Patrick ultimately objecting that Greg Abbott and Joe Straus were “picking on” him. Among the issues of contention, bizarrely, was the Lege’s push to expand pre-K. Doing so is a stated priority of the governor. A bill to that effect passed the House several weeks ago with broad bipartisan support after substantive debate about the size and scope of the proposal. Its companion legislation, similarly, is expected to pass the Senate. And so Abbott, as R.G. reports, was not amused at the broadside issued Tuesday by the Lieutenant Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Board.

Patrick had swiftly issued a statement disavowing any prior knowledge of the council’s letter and expressing his support for “a pre-K program”–hence his dismay, presumably, that Abbott would still be irritated the following morning. Today the Lege was full of rumors about what Patrick knew and when he knew it, but I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, and don’t think it matters. Even if he was blindsided by the letter, he was the one who noisily established the advisory board and empowered the grassroots activists in question to represent themselves as his official advisors. At the same time I don’t see why he would have encouraged them to send this particular letter. As I suggested in my post about the Senate’s vouchers proposal, conservative advocates for education reform fall into two camps. Some, probably the majority, want to improve public education. Others want to end it. Those in the latter camp are a problem for people in the former, like Patrick.  

His grassroots advisors seem to be in the latter camp. The letter is basically a collage of internet rumors, backwards reasoning, paranoid suppositions and lies, marshalled to make the case against a relatively modest proposal to authorize an additional $130 million to expand Texas’s longstanding public pre-K program so that thousands of students who aren’t currently eligible will have the option of attending. The Grassroots Advisory Board elides the “optional” aspect: “This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights.” It misrepresents Dan Huberty, the author of the House bill. He did say, during the House debate, that Texas hasn’t been able to assess the outcomes of its current program, but he wasn’t saying that outcomes don’t matter. He was explaining why his bill requires school districts to provide such data, as a condition of participation—in other words, he was saying the opposite. (Abbott, similarly, has always insisted on accountability measures in this context; that’s why Wendy Davis charged him with trying to subject 4-year-olds to standardized tests.)

It would be a long and thankless task to fully annotate the letter, so I’ll just summarize the argument: according to the Grassroots Advisory Board, the state’s effort to expand pre-K is part of a long tradition (“historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights”) in which governments seek to remove children (“even younger and more malleable” children as socialism creeps across the land) from their parents’ care and install them in a “Godless environment” and mold them according to the government’s own preferences.

Their overarching concern is one that most Texans share: “TEXAS LEGISLATURE SHOULD PROMOTE HEALTHY FAMILIES, NOT BREAK THEM UP.” Many of us, however, would be hard-pressed to explain how expanding access to public pre-K is an effort to break up healthy families, or how doing so would be “sending a message to the rest of the Nation that parents do not or cannot care for their children as well as the State can.” I was confused by this line of argument the first time I heard it too. Over the years, however, I’ve puzzled out the reasoning, if we can call it that:

The Lopsided Fight Over Tax Cuts

On Tuesday, on a 30-1 vote, the Senate passed a budget for the forthcoming 2016-17 biennium. Their version, which proposes $211.4 billion in all-funds spending for the two-year cycle, is almost two billion dollars larger than the House’s, which passed on April 1st, but the spending breakdown is similar, and broadly sound. The most notable and controversial budget-related discrepancy between the chambers has to do with tax cuts. The House is calling for $4.9 billion in biennial tax cuts, as laid out by Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen: a 25 percent cut in the franchise tax rate plus a cut in the state sales tax rate. The Senate proposal, which works out to $4.6 billion, proposes franchise tax cuts and property tax relief.

Both proposals are ominous from a certain perspective. Democrats in both chambers have argued that the money would be better used for critical priorities like public education, higher education, roads, or water. And even Republicans have agreed; Kevin Eltife, in the Senate, has been the most vocal skeptic of the session’s tax-cut fever, arguing that it would be better to use the revenue available to tackle the state’s fiscal obligations, such as public pension liabilities. As I’ve written before, I’m with the skeptics; Texas already has one of the lowest average state tax burdens (and one of the lowest average tax rates) in the country, and one of the lowest rates of state spending per capita. We could always aspire to spend less, like Wyoming, but we have five million children enrolled in public school, and their enrollment is closer to five; more concretely, no one has proposed $4.7 billion in biennial spending cuts, or admitted that they’re happy to let their counterparts in the future take the blame for proposing the tax hikes that will be inevitable in the absence of such cuts.

On the other hand, if you’re in the “death to all taxes” camp, the two proposals may seem equally appealing, because they’re about the same size; as Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson put it, “we’re both right.” And Governor Abbott is apparently similarly agnostic. Back in January, he threatened to veto any budget that didn’t include some business tax relief, and in his state of the state he specifically called for $2.2 billion in property tax cuts. But yesterday, as R.G. wrote, he offered the clarification that he wouldn’t necessarily veto a budget that doesn’t include property tax relief, and indicated that he is open to considering either tax-cut package.

In my view, this was an unnecessary clarification on Abbott’s part. He had never threatened to veto a budget that doesn’t include property tax relief and—state of the state notwithstanding—it doesn’t really make sense to demand that the state cut a tax that it is constitutionally barred from levying in the first place. However, it was probably a worthwhile clarification, because the House and Senate are apparently prepared to go to war over this. Last week, on the day that Bonnen (joined by most of the House Republican caucus) laid out his preferred tax cuts, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick issued a blistering statement about that chamber’s proposal, and yesterday he reiterated the arguments on behalf of the Senate’s plan. Since Nelson is the chair of Senate Finance, her expressed agnosticism is telling. But since Patrick is the lieutenant governor, the Senate can be expected to follow his lead.

In the end, I expect the House to prevail, because Bonnen’s plan is better than Patrick’s for at least half a dozen reasons.

141-5

At roughly six am this morning, after about 18 hours of debate on more than 300 amendments, the House voted on HB1, which the general appropriations bill for the 2016-17 biennium. Official passage, on third reading, will have to wait until this afternoon, but the preliminary vote makes a dispositive statement: 141 in favor versus 5 against.

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