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.

What Social Conservatives (and Liberals) Can Learn from Kyleen Wright

One of my recurring frustrations with debates over social issues is that such debates often rest on moral principles over empirical evidence, sometimes to the point where the latter are dismissed or even disdained. Philosophically, I have no objection; we should all aim to be serious about our moral reasoning, and the First Amendment protects free expression. Pragmatically, though, arguments that are primarily or exclusively based on moral principles are vulnerable and problematic. Vulnerable, because it's hard to build a lasting coalition of interest around a contentious and unverifiable premise. Problematic, because insofar as moral principles aren't derived from evidence, moral arguments aren't subject to re-evaluation in the face of contrary evidence. They're not even subject to evidentiary standards in the first place, which creates another practical problem: moral arguments don't anticipate or really even allow for the possibility of disagreement. They're blunt instruments. Advocates may be able to use them to ram a bill through the legislature, but they won't change anyone's mind doing things that way, and they create suspicion and hostility on both sides. 

With that in mind, I wanted to point you all to the September issue of Texas Monthly, which features a chat with Kyleen Wright, the head of Texans for Life. They were one of the pro-life groups that advocated for the passage of last year's omnibus abortion bill, and as Wright explained to me, their particular priority was the provision that requires doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges. The reason, she explained, was as follows. Two women had confided in her about their distressing abortion experiences--two women who were unrelated, except that they had seen the same doctor. It occurred to her that a law requiring hospital admitting privileges would effectively provide another layer of oversight and get some of the sketchier doctors out of the business. (Worth noting, although this was cut for space in the print edition: Wright added that they had run through the finite list of doctors who provide abortions in Texas and found that most of them either already had such admitting privileges or would be easily able to acquire them.) A year later, this was her overall summary of their work on the bill, and its effects: 

Brain Drain

Over the past few days, news has emerged that two of Texas's better politicians—one Democrat and one Republican, before anyone gets offended—are on the verge of being poached away. The San Antonio Express-News reported on Saturday that Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, has been offered a job in Barack Obama's cabinet, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; it isn't the first time that the folks up in Washington have wooed this Castro, but it is the first time, per the Express-News, that he didn't spurn their advances.

Also significant, although it hasn't incited nearly such excitement and speculation from the national media, is the news that Robert Duncan, the longtime state senator from Lubbock, will leave the Lege to become chancellor of Texas Tech. So let me sneak in a comment about Duncan before chiming in on the speculation about what Castro's move may mean.

Duncan has been a genuinely superlative senator. When we were working on last year's Best List, we crunched the numbers, and found that he was the most honored legislator in the history of the project—it was his fifth time being named a "Best Legislator," and he also had an honorable mention and a rookie of the year notice. Beyond that, Duncan is the kind of legislator who illustrates the reason that we spend so much time researching the Best List. He's not particularly high profile, and he's not at all a showman. If you had watched every minute of proceedings on the Senate floor last year, you probably wouldn't even have noticed him. And yet if you started talking to legislators, staffers, lobbyists, and advocates, you would hear Duncan cited consistently, warmly, and across party lines as one of the most thoughtful, trustworthy, and effective people in the building. As a senator, he's tackled serious but unglamorous issues, such as the solvency of state pension funds; he's also provided critical, behind-the-scenes assists to colleagues of both parties. An example would be last year's equal pay bill. His departure from the Senate will be a loss for that chamber, because he's been a real credit to it—because of the laws he helped pass, and because of the example he set. 

Rick Perry’s Long Goodbye

"It's been an improbable journey," Governor Rick Perry said on Monday afternoon at a Caterpillar dealership in San Antonio. No kidding. When Perry became governor, in 2000, no one expected much from him. He had always been seen as a lightweight, a back-bencher in the Texas House who had managed to get himself elected agriculture commissioner--after switching parties--and later lieutenant-governor, but only with an assist from George W. Bush and Karl Rove. 

Wrecks and Roadblocks

Although the Eighty-third regular legislative session was, by most accounts, a good one—or at least better than the one that preceded it—there was one major issue that didn’t get nearly the traction leaders in both chambers had hoped for: transportation.

The Tea Party Influence

On Friday, a joint conference committee from the House and Senate announced a budget deal for the 2014-2015 biennium. The result, assuming that it passes the full House and Senate next week, comes in at about $195.5 billion—more than last time around, and although it doesn't break the spending cap, it does allow for about $2 billion dollars to be withdrawn from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for water. 

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