Floor Pass

In Brownsville, Two Colleges Split and a Community Suffers

The separation of UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College leads to hundreds of layoffs.
A water tower marked for UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College
Beth Cortez-Neavel
This water tower is among the facilities UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College will need to sort out as they split. See details of the split in a timeline below the story.

Karen Fuss-Sommer came to Brownsville in the 1980s for a nursing job. Over the years she made friends in the community, raised two daughters as a single parent and helped build the University of Texas at Brownsville’s nursing program. Eventually she was granted tenure, and if everything had gone as planned, she says, she could have retired in 2017.

But the end to Fuss-Sommer‘s and many others’ tenures at UT-Brownsville wasn’t quick and unexpected. Fuss-Sommer, now 50, is one of the hundreds of many faculty members at UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College losing their jobs as the schools spit up after a 20-year partnership. Their once-groundbreaking alliance, the only one of its kind in the nation between a community college and a state-funded university, is slated to end August 31, 2015.

For Fuss-Sommer, the loss of her job after two decades is hard to comprehend. “I’m a dedicated employee, have been a dedicated faculty member of our institution from the day I stepped on that campus, and this is how it ends for me,” she says.

At the same time, the state is creating a new super-school for the Rio Grande Valley, combining UT-Brownsville with UT-Pan American in nearby Edinburg. With a new medical school and far more state funding, the new university is ushering in an exciting time for higher education in the Valley—unless you’re one of the hundreds laid off.

Texas Southmost College, a junior college founded in 1926, struck up its partnership with the UT System in 1991. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, had sued the state, arguing that Texas wasn’t spending enough on higher education in South Texas and was discriminating against minority students. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the 72nd Legislature responded to the pressure by forming UT-Brownsville in conjunction with TSC.

The partnership allowed UT-Brownsville to use TSC’s buildings, while the UT System paid rent. The partnership combined the community college’s local tax revenue with state funding—more money than either school could raise on its own. TSC’s locally elected trustees could still give input, but all the faculty and staff went on the UT System’s payroll.

Students in the Valley, where 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, got a university education for the lowest tuition in the UT System and still enjoyed open enrollment for any student with a high school diploma or a GED, which is normally only available through community colleges in Texas.

“The Valley needed that,” UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia says today. “We saw students expand their own horizons.”

This marriage of a community college and a state-funded university was the only one of its kind in the nation. The way their relationship has unraveled, it’s no wonder why.

Trouble surfaced in 2009, when UT-Brownsville and TSC asked the Legislature for $10 million to help UT-Brownsville make its rent payments to TSC. The Legislature kicked the problem back, asking the UT System and the TSC Board of Trustees to figure out how to pay for the rent. But the rent money was just the latest in a series of clashes between the two institutions. In November 2010, the UT Regents voted to dissolve the partnership, saying the alliance had become “untenable.” UT-Brownsville President Garcia says that the joint governance of two schools under one roof contributed to the strain.

The once-groundbreaking partnership is slated to end August 31, 2015, the date when both schools could earn separate accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Garcia announced the divorce at a campus meeting in November 2011. She says the break-up felt like a split in the community, with residents choosing sides. But she says the split is a “natural progression” for higher education in the Valley.

Joe Molina, editor of The Collegian, the campus newspaper, says the whole community was upset. He says students wondered whether they had enough credits to stay at UT-Brownsville, or would be forced to enroll at TSC. Faculty and staff began speculating about what the split would mean for their jobs. Some began looking for work elsewhere.

Karen Fuss-Sommer is among the tenured faculty members who fought UT-Brownsville's layoff notices.
Beth Cortez-Neavel
Karen Fuss-Sommer is among the tenured faculty members who fought UT-Brownsville’s layoff notices.

Some, like Fuss-Sommer, could at least fall back on a unique sort of protection as part of a group known as “the 92ers,” faculty hired in the year before the merger in 1992. The administration has offered special job protection to the 92ers: if the two schools ever broke up, the 92ers were guaranteed a similar job at TSC after the split. 

UT-Brownsville developed a plan to downsize its staff to match an enrollment that declined from 15,000 students in 2011 to 7,000 by the start of 2013. “We knew it had to happen,” Garcia says. “But none of us … were expert in how to make it work in an equitable way.”

Early in March 2012, UT-Brownsville formed review committees to determine which faculty would stay with the school, and which would be let go. The committees ranked faculty based on advanced degrees or tenure status. Teachers at the bottom of the list got cut. The goal was to create an objective rubric for the type of faculty each department wanted to keep—but some departments were so small, it was obvious who would lose their jobs. Fuss-Sommer, whose layoff came in that second round, calls it “a perfect opportunity to get rid of people you don’t like.”

Garcia says the committees were also populated to include both tenured and non-tenured faculty, to avoid subjectivity. “There was no way for any one person to tilt the result,” she says.

The layoffs began in late March 2012, with 30 adjunct professors who taught trade courses like air conditioning or car maintenance. At the end of April, Fuss-Sommer and 104 other faculty members—nearly a fifth of the school’s 518 total faculty—were also let go. Of those laid off, 53 were tenured.

Some faculty retired or left for other jobs before the final layoff notice. Others, like Fuss-Sommer, fought back.

First she appealed her termination, arguing that even after the split UT-Brownsville would still have a nursing college and would need an assistant dean. She asked why the administration laid her off but kept untenured, less experienced faculty in her department. She said administrators hadn’t shown the “good cause” required to fire her now that she had tenure.

In July, she received a final notice asking her to sign a severance deal: give up her tenure and her right to sue UTB or the UT System and waived all her grievances, she would get an eighth of her salary as severance pay.

Fuss-Sommer refused to sign the severance deal. Instead, she went to her union lawyer, Russell Ramirez, with the Texas Faculty Association and the Texas State Teachers Association. She and Ramirez—who is also representing three others similarly laid off by UT-Brownsville—are looking into suing the school over its handling of the layoffs.

“There’s no consistency to it,” Ramirez says. “Some people are staying without Ph.D.s and other people aren’t. … It really looks like cronyism to me, where they’re just picking all of the people that they want or they don’t want.”

Ramirez calls it a “really baroque system” developed by UT-Brownsville Provost Alan Artibise to “shield what he’s really doing, which is firing tenured professors.”

Another laid-off tenured faculty member, English professor Susan Mills, sued the school in April, contending the layoffs were part of the administration’s broader attack on tenure rights.

“Downsizing is a Myth,” Mills’ lawsuit argues. “If the downsizing of UT-B were a reality, UT-B would not be hiring faculty at the same time it is releasing nearly ninety faithful educators. … The real reason is financial exigency.”

So far, Ramirez has also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing “a disparate impact on people who are over 40,” he says. The EEOC told Ramirez it would assign staff to investigate his allegations of ageism and cronyism, which he hopes will help him file a federal lawsuit. Ramirez estimates that it will be years before Fuss-Sommer and the other dismissed faculty could make their case in court.

TSC officials have told Fuss-Sommer they know the school must take her on as part of the old agreement, but she says they’ve been fuzzy on the details. Fuss-Sommer says TSC has even told the 92ers they may have to apply for a new position.

TSC officials say the school is discussing how to make room for the 92ers, which include 23 staff and 24 faculty, including Fuss-Sommer. Although the staffers have jobs with UT-Brownsville through August, dismissed faculty members have less than a month until the end of their employment.

In late March, Garcia told the Observer the upheaval is all part of the grand transition for higher education in the Valley. “This is just a moment. … It is the launching of a new university,” she said. “We need good faculty. We need good staff. We were trying to [lay off] the least number.”

One week after she said that, on April 2, UT-Brownsville sent pink slips to 257 staff members, bringing the total number of fired employees to 362. Again, the layoffs were attributed to the anticipated lower number of enrolling students after the separation in September 2013. UT-Brownsville gave its staff the rest of the day off that Tuesday, and then expected employees to come back to work the following day.

“It was like a morgue,” recalls Terry Garrett, Brownsville chapter president of the Texas Faculty Association, and a tenured UT-Brownsville government professor. “We’re talking about a region of Texas that is the poorest in the state. … So what is the impact going to be in the community of Brownsville?” he wonders. “It’s just a horrendous sort of thing.”

Buildings on the UT-Brownsville campus.
Beth Cortez-Neavel
The UT-Brownsville campus. In 2004, UTB and TSC built six new buildings with $68 million in local bond money. Now lawmakers are planning separate construction for the campus created when UTB and UT-Pan American merge.

UT-Brownsville has begun moving out of the TSC-owned buildings and into the four it owns independently. The UT Regents are considering 12 sites for new UT-Brownsville campus buildings, for which they’ve requested $151.6 million from the state. For now, UT-Brownsville plans to share classrooms with TSC for a few more years, though the schools are still negotiating the rent.

“I have a lot of anguish about the break-up and the results of it,” says Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), who was behind the legislation that created the original partnership. “These were some of the reasons I did not want them to break up. … It’s an incredible blow to these individuals and to the community. “

But legislators and UT System officials hope the community will ultimately benefit from the break-up, and state leaders are stoking excitement about the new super-school for the Valley that will bring together UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American in Edinburg. The UT System projects the new school could enroll the second largest number of Hispanics of any school in the nation, and top administrators have promised not to lay off more faculty as the schools merge. Faculty in the Valley have heard similar promises before.

Oliveira says the merger is the best long-term solution, and shouldn’t be seen as related to the tumultuous split with TSC. “I think it’s sort of the old saying: one door closes, another opens.”

Beth Cortez-Neavel is a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin and an Observer reporting intern. 

It’s been hailed as the kumbaya session till now, but personal tussles and a major budget standoff between the chambers are rocking the 83rd Legislature in its final days.

All Wednesday, the House and Senate each held major budget bills hostage that need to pass. Senators are holding off on the local calendar to avoid voting on the supplemental budget measure House Bill 1025 until the House votes on Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would send voters a constitutional amendment to create a State Water Implementation Fund and State Implementation Revenue Fund. The House put off SJR 1 for days to see if the Senate will approve $200 million for schools during the HB 1025 vote. The Senate is also waiting for the House before it takes up HB 1025, as the clock ticks for bills to pass in either chamber.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday afternoon that Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams wouldn’t hold HB 1025 captive any longer, but lawmakers still have yet to see whether it includes the money for schools.

Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) spent this morning heatedly blocking all bills by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) on the local calendar, because he disrespected the unincorporated parts of Harris County, she said. Riddle’s stand prompted representatives to run across the Capitol to negotiate with senators. The web of members embroiled in cross-chamber spats thickened, but the fight fizzled out as quickly as they’d appeared.

The House finished the major business on the local calendar and is currently catching up on yesterday’s supplemental calendar before they get to today’s, which includes SJR 1. Whether HB 1025 will include the $200 million for schools is still up in the air and at this point it’s a waiting game to see which chamber will budge first. On top of it all, Senate Bill 1—the state budget, and the only legislation members must pass all session—is still in conference committee.

Though most anything seems calm compared to the 2011 cuts, the next few hours could make or break this session’s legacy as a smooth operation.

As the afternoon moved on, the House began working through the Senate bills it had delayed, Williams began passing out paper copies of a new version of HB 1025, and the House prepared to take up SJR 1. We’ll update with more as the negotiations unfold.

Update at 8:15: The Senate is in the middle of debate over HB 1025. Democrats Royce West and Wendy Davis congratulated Williams on his work on education funding in particular. Williams said the basic allotment per-student would be the highest ever in Texas under this budget, reaching $5,040 in 2015.

“Hopefully we can stay on this particular glide path,” West told him.

As Williams explained how the bill would round out the state’s budget, he said his only disappointment was that highway funding is “the one thing we’re falling short on.” —Patrick Michels

Update at 8:30: HB 1025 passed the Senate on a 29-2 vote. “We have an Amber Alert out for SJR 1 right now,” Williams joked after the vote. “So with that, I’m going to ask that we stop right now and see if we have any phone calls or anything where we can get that thing moving.” —Patrick Michels

Update at 8:32: In the House, following a tearful farewell from Galveston Democrat Craig Eiland announcing his retirement, lawmakers have taken up SJR 1.

Lawmakers just shot down an amendment from Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), which would have capped the state’s contribution to the on $2 billion on contributions from the Rainy Day Fund to the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. That’s the new fund SJR1 would ask voters to approve creating.

That’s the amount the Senate just voted to devote to the state water plan this biennium, and lawmakers argued Perry’s amendment operates under assumption that “nothing is going to change” in the state’s water needs. —Emily Mathis

Update at 10:14: The House overwhelmingly passed SJR 1 after a few tough debates about spending. Read more about it here.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Five days left till sine die, and the deadlines are coming fast. Today’s the last day for the Senate and the House to pass bills and joint resolutions from the opposite chamber on third reading.

The House agreed—except for Rep. David Simpson’s lone “nay” — to postpone voting on Senate Joint Resolution 1, a key component of this session’s budget deal, yet another day. (That gets the bill around last night’s midnight deadline for voting on Senate bills and resolutions on second reading). The Dallas Morning News has the details.

The House will take up SJR 1 today. It’s a constitutional amendment to create SWIFT, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, and pave the way for the Lege to fund water infrastructure projects.

The word is the House will postpone a vote on SJR 1 up to Thursday, if necessary, until the Senate hears House Bill 1025.  The emergency spending bill is the House’s attempt to add $200 million to the public school system, and Gov. Rick Perry has threatened to call a special session if the bill doesn’t pass. Right now, the level of trust between the House and Senate isn’t too high.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Senate passed a much-amended House Bill 500, the controversial bill that would exempt quite a few businesses from the franchise tax, according to the Quorum Report (subscribers only). Sen. Tommy Williams tacked on an amendment that ties the passage of the bill to SJR 1, to muck up the budget game of chicken between chambers even more.

2. The House tentatively passed a bill Tuesday that allows for “hotter,” or more radioactive, waste to be dumped at a site dangerously close to water tables. The Observer‘s Forrest Wilder reports this is just one more favor granted to a major GOP donor.

3. The Senate passed House Bill 29 yesterday, which requires universities to offer a flat-rate, four-year tuition option for incoming students. But the Texas Tribune reports the Senate Higher Education Committee’s restrictions on university regents might solicit a veto from Gov. Rick Perry.

4. Last but certainly not least, House Democrats managed to kill SB 11, the drug screening-f0r-welfare-applicants bill on the floor last night. Dems lined up points of order and stalled the bill until it—and about 50 other Senate bills on the calendar behind it—were dead. The Statesman has details.

Line of the Day:

““We believe, simply, that this bill is wrong,” —Democratic Rep. Chris Turner on SB 11, which would have required drug screening for some welfare applicants.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. HB 1025 in the Senate and SJR 1 in the House. Here’s hoping the House doesn’t move the vote to Thursday.

2. The Senate has yet to hear HB 972, which would allow for licensed concealed handgun owners to pack heat on university and college campuses.

3. Today’s also the last day for the House to consider Senate Bills on the Local and Consent calendar, including a bill that would set requirements for election interpreters and one that would update the definition of “autism and other pervasive developmental disorders.”

The Lead:

It’s not every day you see the Texas Legislature vote to tighten ethics standards, but that’s what happened yesterday when the House initially approved the Ethics Commission sunset bill.

As first written, Senate Bill 219 made minor changes to the agency that oversees campaign and lobby disclosures. But House members added a series of amendments on the floor that transformed the legislation into one that, as the Observer’s Beth Cortez-Neavel reports, would “force Railroad Commissioners to resign from the position if they decided to run for other offices; mandating that lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms are posted online (without their home addresses); requiring that 501(c)(4) nonprofits report their donors if they get involved in Texas elections, and requiring legislators and their families to report any government contracts in which they hold more than a 50-percent stake.”

Rep. Charlie Geren added the amendment that would require politically active nonprofits—501(c)(4) groups like Empower Texans and its head Michael Quinn Sullivan—to disclose their donors. You might be thinking, “didn’t that bill already pass?” And indeed it. The amendment was a version of SB 346, which has already been sent to the governor, who’s expected to veto it. By attaching it to the Ethics Commission sunset bill, Geren may have found a way to circumvent Rick Perry’s veto.

 Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House voted for an amendment yesterday to ban Medicaid expansion. As the Texas Tribune‘s Becca Aaronson reports, Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) added an amendment to a Medicaid bill that would ban HHSC from expanding Mediciad under Obamamcare. The amendment could always be stripped out in conference committee, but if it does survive, it could preclude any deal with the feds on Medicaid expansion.

2. Yesterday, Dan Patrick celebrated the imminent death of the curriculum management program CSCOPE. Patrick announced that “the era of CSCOPE lesson plans has come to an end,” the Observer’s Patrick Michels reports. And once again the land was safe from the menace of curriculum tools.

3. The Dallas Morning-News reports that the House’s initial approval of a ban on cell-phone tracking without cause has police associations none too pleased.

 Line of the Day:

“The big lesson here is that if you can generate a witch hunt that includes enough incendiary and distorted claims, then there are politicians at the Capitol who are ready to throw their supposed commitment to local control out the window,” —Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller in a statement this morning in response to CSCOPE administrators turning over thousands of financial documents to Senator Dan Patrick’s (R-Houston) office.

What We’re Watching Today:

1.  SB 11—the watered-down bill that would implement drug testing for some welfare applicants—is slated for debate on the House floor today.

2. Tommy Williams’ transparency bill—SB 14—is also set for debate in the House. The bill would institute a number of provisions to give the public more information on schools, taxes, and government spending.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford)
Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford).

A sunset bill for the Texas Ethics Commission tentatively passed through the House Monday evening, with a few ethics reform bills tacked on as amendments.

Senate Bill 219 would have made minor changes to the agency as part of a once-every-12-years sunset review process, but on the House floor today it became a vehicle for amendments requiring Railroad Commissioners to resign from the position if they decided to run for other offices; mandating that lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms are posted online (without their home addresses); requiring that 501(c)(4) nonprofits report their donors if they get involved in Texas elections, and requiring legislators and their families to report any government contracts in which they hold more than a 50-percent stake.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) sought to move the Public Integrity Unit out from the Travis County district attorney’s office and place under the state attorney general’s office. Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), in 2007, and Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington), in 2011, tried the same move, to bring the unit under the typically Republican-controlled attorney general’s office.

Oversight of the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates public officials for ethical misconduct, has become increasingly political over the past decade. While every district attorney in the state has authority to investigate public officials, the DA in heavily Democratic Travis County is the only one that gets state funding to do so.

King said today that the unit violates laws requiring a separation of the executive branch and judicial branch by putting both powers under the Travis County DA’s office. While the DA’s office gets statewide jurisdiction, King noted that only a small percentage of Texas voters—about 4 percent—get to decide who heads the Public Integrity Unit. King has also kept up a steady drumbeat this session calling for Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign in light of her jail sentence for drunk driving.

Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) pointed out that two of the cases under investigation by the PIU are against employees inside the attorney general’s office, creating a conflict if the Public Integrity Unit moved there.

“I just think we’re stepping in a place where we don’t need to go,” Geren said.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) reminded the House from the back mic that under the Travis County DA’s office the PIU has been very successful in prosecuting misconduct.

“Are you aware that in just the last six years the PIU has obtained more than 680 convictions and obtained court orders for more than $11.8 million in restitution?” he asked.

Lawmakers voted to table the amendment, but some Republicans didn’t let King’s first amendment go down without a fight—almost an hour after it was killed, a few members requested a re-vote.

“I don’t think there was any misunderstanding about how you voted,” Geren said, in protest. “We have a district attorney that screwed up and got arrested for DWI, I think she should resign, but that doesn’t have anything to do,” he said, with the Public Integrity Unit’s operations.

Eventually it was determined the amendment could not be brought back up, but King did manage to pass an amendment requiring a study of whether the PIU’s place under the Travis County DA’s office is legal.

SB 219 still has to make it through a final vote in the House and a conference committee of House and Senate members before it makes its way to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk.

CSCOPE-blue

An emotional and incredibly strange war waged over the last two years—in community halls and small-town diners, conference calls and YouTubes, Fox News broadcasts and legislative hearings—concluded this morning as Sen. Dan Patrick announced that “the era of CSCOPE lesson plans has come to an end.”

And so begins the time for Tea Party and anti-CSCOPE activists to take a victory lap, or, if you’re one of the thousands of teachers that used CSCOPE’s lessons in your classroom, the time to start printing off and photocopying those handouts before they disappear forever.

“The big lesson here is that if you can generate a witch hunt that includes enough incendiary and distorted claims, then there are politicians at the Capitol who are ready to throw their supposed commitment to local control out the window,” said Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller in a statement this morning.

The curriculum management program, run cooperatively by the state’s 20 regional Education Service Centers, will still be available for the hundreds of school districts that use it to help teachers cover all the state standards, or TEKS. But the handouts and sample lessons that prompted charges of Marxist, progressive, liberal, socialist, globalist, environmentalist, anti-American, anti-ChristianMuslim, Mexican indoctrination will be gone by August 31.

It all ended with a 72-hour blitz of meetings at the Capitol and a letter late last night, “signed by all 20 members of the CSCOPE board,” Patrick said. CSCOPE administrators had turned over thousands of financial documents to Patrick’s office last week.

“It couldn’t be a more exciting day for us on the education committee,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels). “We identified something that was shrouded in secrecy, that affected education for our children, made it difficult for parents to find out what was being taught to our children, and we now have that issue resolved.”

Kyle Wargo, executive director of Amarillo’s Region 17 service center and a CSCOPE board member, got the privilege of speaking for the defeated. “I’m certainly very excited,” he said, which is understandable given what a punching bag regional service centers have become over the last six months.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s in the best interests of the school districts, it’s in the best interest of the children.” Wargo said. Writing lessons for schools across Teas just isn’t practical, considering how much diversity of thought there is across a state Texas’ size. “We’ve learned one thing,” he said. “Lesson plans have a lot of subjectivity to them.”

“This is a great example of what happens when moms and dads across the state of Texas come together and get involved in their children’s education,” said Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands). “Everything that happened has happened here as a result of all their hard work, tireless efforts, blogging, Facebook messages, Twitter messages, email, press conferences, traveling tireless hours across the state to raise awareness about this program.”

Toth will pull his CSCOPE accountability bill in response to today’s news, and Patrick said the State Board of Education would also shelve its review of CSCOPE history lessons.

Patrick said he hoped big school districts would step in to help small districts replace the lesson plans they’d been getting from CSCOPE before—a practical solution, but also the sort of regional partnership that created CSCOPE in the first place. Failing that, he said, of course there’s always the private sector: “There are many vendors that, I’m sure, will try to fill this vacuum starting next year.”

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Just one week left in the legislative session, and as usual lawmakers are cramming last-minute law-making like it’s the night before final exams.

The House has a long calendar of bills today, but the big one deals with ethics reform. Senate Bill 219 relates to the functions of the Texas Ethics Commission and concerns itself with transparency for political contributions, expenditures, advertising, and lobbying.

House members have pre-filed 34 amendments to the bill. As the Texas Tribune‘s Emily Ramshaw writes, some of the amendments could result in tough votes for lawmakers. That includes a proposal to require lawmakers to disclose contracts their family members hold with government agencies. One amendment would shift the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates allegations against state officials, from the Travis County DA to the Attorney General’s office. That’s a change some Republicans have long sought and an idea recently boosted by Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s DWI arrest. (Some Republicans would rather have a Republican AG investigating state officials rather than a Democratic DA).

Ethics debates are always fascinating. We’ll see how far House members are willing to go in regulating themselves.

Weekend Headlines:

1. A budget deal was reached late on Friday afternoon. Negotiators from House and Senate agreed on a water infrastructure fund of $2 billion, $3.4 billion to public education, and agreed to have public schools contribute $530 million toward Texas’ Teacher Retirement System, the Observer‘s Beth Cortez-Neavel reports. 

2. Speaking of ethics, the Tribune’s Jay Root examines the conflicts of interest that emerge when lawmakers legislate on issues that effect their businesses. He centers the story on Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) who oversees bills dealing with HOAs and runs one of the country’s largest HOA-management companies.

3. The AP reports on major proposed changes to the Texas Water Development Board that would accompany the $2 billion in spending on water projects. The number of board members would be cut in half, and the current board and executive director would be replaced.

Line of the Day:

“I never make summer plans.” —Rep. Todd Hunter, on Thursday regarding House plans to reach a budget. Maybe now he can rent that condo in Maui.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Senate Joint Resolution 1 is on the floor today. It’s a spending vehicle authorizing funding for water projects, and would establish the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).

2. A bill that would authorize certain educators to carry concealed handguns in schools is also on calendar. Senate Bill 17 has received plenty of praise from national gun groups.

3. We’re also keeping an eye on Senate Bill 791, which alters the kinds of low-level radioactive waste that Waste Control Specialists can accept at its West Texas dump. That bill, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, is scheduled for debate on the House floor.

After yesterday’s budget mess, it looks like a deal has been reached.

On Thursday the Observer reported that the budget negotiations stalled after pressure from Gov. Rick Perry. The guv wanted to limit new funding for public education to $3.2 billion to avoid a vote in the Legislature on increasing the state’s spending cap.

Late Friday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that Texas House Democratic leader Rep. Yvonne Davis declared lawmakers reached a deal which would fund water infrastructure at $2 billion, restore $3.4 billion to state public education and would have public schools contribute $530 million toward Texas’ Teacher Retirement System.

“We have a tentative commitment that we have a deal,” Davis told the Associated Press. “I think people are pleased. They’ve been working very hard to forge relationships and do some good for Texas.”

The agreement capped contentious on-again-off-again negotiations between Democrats, who wanted the Legislature to go further toward restoring $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools made last session, and Republicans, who didn’t want to take a vote on the spending cap.

Update 1:00 p.m.: The skirmish over floundering House bills in the Senate has been resolved. Over a lunch recess in both the Senate and the House, lawmakers met to discuss Rep. Harold Dutton and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon’s claims that certain Senators were killing a few of their bills.

According to the Texas Tribune, Sen. Rodney Ellis, one of the senators allegedly stopping the bills, said he was working on a deal with Dutton.

“Everybody is happy. I love everybody,” he told the Tribune. “I’m trying to call Dutton right now.”

Original Story:

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) took to the front mic early Friday morning, upset over the Senate reportedly killing one of his uncontested bills. Dutton said he felt the Senate was disrespecting the legislative process.

“If the Senate doesn’t respect us, they need to expect us,” he said. “My message to the Senate is they need to be scared of someone in the House.”

To a bipartisan standing ovation from the floor, Dutton said he was headed over to the Senate, to give them a piece of his mind. He later changed course and said he instead intended to kill each Senate bill on today’s local and consent calendar until his bill was heard in the Senate.

The Texas Tribune reports Dutton could be referring to his largely uncontested House Bill 2139, which would allow a management district in Houston to undertake tax increment financing to pay for improvement projects—in other words, a highly local issue.

Sens. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) took issue with some of Dutton’s legislation according to the Quorum Report.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) also took to the back mic to say she would do anything she had to do to keep Senate bills on the local and consent calendar from being heard today until one of her floundering bills also got a vote.

“I have a concern about a bill that I personally have worked on for about four or five years to get out of this body,” McClendon told the press later. “We were able to work and compromise and talk to people and we got the bill out… there’s a member over there who says she’s going to kill the bill.”

McClendon pointed to Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who has threatened to kill House Bill 166.

“I don’t have a reaction on what she said but I have a reaction on what she did,” McClendon said. “I thought we were all getting along until bills were held up.”

HB 166 bill would create the “Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission” to investigate wrongful convictions and look for ways to improve the criminal justice system. McClendon’s bill passed out of the House in late April and was left pending in the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee as of Tuesday. Timothy Cole was wrongly convicted of raping a fellow Texas Tech student in 1985. He died in 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence.

The House has postponed hearing any of the Senate bills on the local and consent calendar until 1:15 p.m. Friday, although earlier Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), stated from the speaker’s dias that it’s the House intention to move all Senate bills from this calendar to Monday’s calendar.

In the meantime, the House stands recessed for lunch.

The Observer will update as we learn more.

The Lead:

Just 10 days remain in the legislative session, and negotiations over the budget—the one bill the Lege has to pass—seem at a critical point.

The negotiations unexpectedly imploded yesterday due to sudden pressure from Gov. Rick Perry over disagreements on $700 million for schools. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Democrats were united in supporting a budget agreement in which $2.5 of general revenue went to schools and as would $1.4 billion in new property taxes.

Democrats had even resigned to accept that Republicans would divert $500 million previously dedicated to schools for other needs. But Perry said that deal still left too much being spent on schools, Turner said, though Perry later deflected blame. Two meetings on the budget were also cancelled.

But after more late-night meetings on Thursday, a budget deal may again be close. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told the AP that a budget agreement between House and Senate negotiators could be reached today. The AP reports the deal would bump new money for education back up to about $4 billion. That’s still short of restoring the $5.4 billion the Lege cut from schools in 2011, but it’s more money for schools than Perry was advocating. Stay tuned.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House passed a bill that will raise the cap on the number of charter schools from 215 to 275 in 2019, the Observer’s Patrick Michels writes.

2. Perry signed the Michael Morton Act that will make all evidence accessible to defense attorneys in order to avoid gross injustices like the 25 years Michael Morton served in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, as the Observer’s Olivia Messer reports.

3. The Observer‘s Emily Mathis examines why the proposal to implement term limits for statewide officials failed in the House on Wednesday. Many House members didn’t want to cross governor-for-life Rick Perry, who had made no secret of his opposition to the term-limit proposal.

Line of the Day:

““There’s just a sense that these things are being handed out relatively willy-nilly because the school districts don’t have to pay the costs. There hasn’t been any apparent close oversight coming out of the comptroller’s office on these projects.” —Texans for Public Justice Research Director Andrew Wheat on tax breaks approved by the comptroller’s office.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House Appropriations committee is supposed to meet at 8 a.m. to consider SJR 1, a vehicle that would devote rainy day fund money for water and transportation projects.

2. The House is dealing with an omnibus bill, SB 1458, that would rework benefits under the Teacher Retirement System. The bill currently includes a provision to raise the retirement age for full pension to 62.

3. A Senate bill authorizing the new combined university in South Texas will be up today in the House.

4. The House will also hear Senate Bill 198, which would prevent HOAs from restricting use of Xeriscaping or drought-resistant plants, which some geniuses at HOAs across Texas have tried to do.