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Sen. Donna Campbell
John Savage
Sen. Donna Campbell responds to a question from Sen. Kel Seliger

Like an obstinate weed that just won’t die, the debate over school vouchers returned to the Capitol for the 11th straight legislative session on Thursday.

With former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and GOP mega-donor James Leininger on hand to testify in front of dozens of adamant voucher supporters, the hearing took on a carnival-like atmosphere at times.

Some voucher advocates, including Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), used Thursday’s hearing on a pair of school voucher bills to rail about the state of public schools.

“Today we have a monstrosity, a monopoly,” Campbell said. “It’s called public school.”

Campbell’s solution to the monstrous public school system, Senate Bill 276, would pay parents up to 60 percent of the statewide average per-student cost of operating public schools if they move their children to private schools. That would amount to about $5,200 per student, Campbell said.

Testifying in favor Campbell’s bill, Gramm repeated the common, if vehemently disputed, trope: Our public schools are failing.

“I believe we need dramatic action,” Gramm said. “When you have over a 40 percent dropout rate, and when you have schools that year after year after year cannot meet minimum standards, something is wrong.”

According to the Texas Education Agency, Gramm was wrong. Texas’ annual dropout rate for grades 7-12 was only 1.6 percent in 2012-2013. The long-term dropout rate for the class of 2013 was 6.6 percent. And just a few days ago, Gov. Greg Abbott shared the exciting news on Twitter that Texas’ graduation rate among black and Hispanic students was first in the nation.

Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm
John Savage
Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm testifying in support of school vouchers

Despite being scotched repeatedly in the past by an alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans, proponents of vouchers—Campbell calls them “taxpayer savings grants”—say they may have a chance of passing this session.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen this session,”  Vance Ginn of the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation told the Observer. “This is the best opportunity that we’ve seen because of the push that we are getting from leadership.”

Ginn was referring to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is an adamant supporter of vouchers and has made them one of his legislative priorities.

Patrick even showed up to testify—and snap a selfie. Patrick invoked the experience of Leininger, who funded thousands of private school scholarships for students in San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD.

“Guess what happens in the Edgewood school district?” Patrick said. “[Their test scores] went up dramatically because of the competition that was created.”

Leininger, a multi-millionaire who founded TPPF and is considered one of Texas’ most powerful political powerbrokers, testified earlier in the day about his positive experience with private school scholarships in the Edgewood district.

According to a report from the National Education Association, Edgewood lost $5,800 for every student who used a scholarship to leave the district, and “the resulting loss of $4.8 million caused numerous disruptions and dimunitions [sic] in the quality of education for public school students.”

In addition to draining funds from public schools, critics voiced other major concerns: lack of accountability for private schools, which are exempted from state testing, and the high cost of private school tuition. While Campbell’s bill may provide up to $5,200 to cover that tuition, the average private high school tuition cost is almost $9,000 per year in Texas. Upper-echelon schools often charge more than $20,000 per year.

While Ginn says Campbell’s bill has the best chance of passing out of committee, the Education Committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 642 by Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).

Bettencourt’s bill would give private businesses a tax credit for creating private school scholarships, a plan similar to one proposed by Patrick and Campbell in 2013.

Pastor Kyle Henderson of First Baptist Church in Athens testified that voucher proponent’s attacks on public schools and teachers bothered him.

“I am stunned by the disdain expressed to public school teachers in this room,” Henderson said.

Joanna Sanchez, University of Texas education policy researcher and policy fellow for Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), says that studies on vouchers and student outcomes don’t suggest they can improve student achievement on a large scale.

“The empirical evidence shows that vouchers lead to increased sorting of students by socioeconomic status, and does not support the claim that vouchers help disadvantaged children” Sanchez told the Observer.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-houston) voiced perhaps the most vehement opposition to the bills.

“Isn’t this just a money grab by non-public schools?” Garca asked.

Both bills were left pending in committee.

Dan Huberty
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)

The anti-testing sentiment that drove lawmakers to scale back high school tests in 2013 was back on display at the Capitol late Tuesday night, as a House committee considered new bills that would reduce standardized testing even further.

House Bill 743, by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), would reduce the amount of time students in grades three through eight spend taking state assessments.

Huberty held up a stack of papers several inches thick as he introduced the bill shortly after midnight.

“I have petitions from over 20,000 people who have actually said we’re taking too much time on the test, we’re spending too much time on the test, we’re wasting our children’s time on the test,” Huberty said.

The bill would place time limits on tests—two hours per test for students in grades three through five, and three hours for students in grades six through eight.

The bill also calls for an evaluation that shows Texas’ standardized tests are “valid and reliable,” to be performed by a group other than the Texas Education Agency or the test developer.

During the last several years, parents, teachers and school administrators have revolted against Texas’ testing regime, saying the tests are simply not an accurate measure of what students learn in school. They argue the tests have led to a too-narrow curriculum, teaching to the test, wasted instructional time and increased anxiety in students. Nearly 900 Texas school boards have signed a resolution urging lawmakers to deemphasize testing.

Some of those critics were in the committee room Tuesday, cheering lawmakers who’ve come to share their concerns.

In an exchange with Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Huberty said the current testing system is “seriously flawed” and must be changed.

“If we follow that strain of logic, we might as well get rid of centralized testing completely,” Bohac said.

“Yes, I’m happy—let’s do it,” Huberty said, prompting cheers and applause from the audience.

Standardized testing is big business in Texas. The state currently has a five-year, $468 million contract with Pearson Education to create and grade the STAAR test. It’s a delicate time for the publishing giant, which is one of two finalists for the state’s next testing contract, which could be announced later this month. Some have criticized Pearson for soliciting test graders on Craigslist.

Bohac asked if the problem was Pearson or the tests themselves.

“That problem that we keep coming back to is that Pearson sucks when it comes to grading the test,” Bohac said.

A similar bill to Huberty’s, filed by former Rep. Bennett Ratliff (R-Coppell), passed last session, but was vetoed by former Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas is the epicenter of the national fight over standardized testing. In 1993, the Legislature first required all public school students to take an annual state assessment that would be used to measure student and school performance.

In the late 1990s, testing proponents, including former Gov. George W. Bush, boasted that testing and test-based accountability improved student achievement and lowered dropout rates. Boston College researcher Walt Haney has found that the “Texas education miracle” was more  statistical manipulation than reality, but the myth of Texas’ test-driven improvement was nevertheless widely accepted.

By 2010, Texas required a maximum of 32 state assessments over nine grades. In 2013, the Legislature reduced that number to 22.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires elementary school students to take 17 standardized tests in math, reading and science, but Texas requires additional writing and social studies tests in some grades.

Another proposal from Huberty heard last night, House Bill 742, would eliminate the tests not required by federal law. “It’s time to have the discussion about what we’re doing with our kids and the testing, “Huberty said.

Both of Huberty’s bills were left pending in committee.

A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.
Photo courtesy Gulf Restoration Network/Lighthawk.org
A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.

In another fight over local control this session, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), one of the more powerful lawmakers in the House, is pushing a bill that would erode the ability of cities and counties to collect civil penalties from polluters. This morning, Geren described the latest version of his House Bill 1794 to the House Environmental Regulation Committee as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” by capping the maximum penalties that can be assessed on environmental violators at $4.3 million and imposing a five-year statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits.

The legislation appears to be a response to high-profile litigation between Harris County and three companies considered liable for the San Jacinto River waste pits, an EPA Superfund site that has been leaking dioxins into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay for decades.

While Geren jettisoned some of the most far-reaching parts of the original version of HB 1794—a requirement for local governments to prove that a company “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law, for example—local authorities and environmentalists said they were still opposed.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the veteran head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak.

“We think the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] is a toothless tiger,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the resources or “the guts to go after biggest polluters.”

First dug next to the river in 1965, the pits were only determined in 2005 to be the primary source of dioxins in upper Galveston Bay, which has been under a fish consumption advisory for two decades.

Local authorities, environmentalists and citizens of nearby neighborhoods contend that the waste pits have caused incalculable harm to the ecosystem and are responsible for a cluster of cancers and other diseases in Highlands and Channelview. In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued the three companies he claims are liable for the damage caused by the dioxins in public waterways: International Paper, Waste Management of Texas and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation. The county asked for an eye-popping $1 billion.

Last year, as the lawsuit barreled toward a jury trial, two of the companies—Waste Management and McGinnis—settled for $29.2 million. International Paper was found not-guilty by a jury on a 10-2 vote.

Jackie Young, a 28-year-old Houston woman and Miss Houston Rodeo 2013 who grew up in Highlands, a community near the waste pits, told the committee that dioxins from the waste pits poisoned her family and neighbors. Young’s father suffers from multiple myeloma, a rare bone marrow cancer that she says is shockingly common among citizens in the area around the pits. Young has had two surgeries on her reproductive organs since 2013 and has experienced seizures, fatigue and other symptoms she associates with exposure to dioxins.

“There’s no cap on our medical expenses,” she told the committee today, “and there’s no cap on the medical expenses that many of our residents have incurred.”

Cost estimates for remediating the waste pits range from $100 million to $600 million.

“My father may never walk me down the aisle and I may never have kids, but that is my reality, I believe, like many other families in Channelview and Highlands, because companies dumped in our environment. To think that legislation is seriously being considered to limit and minimize penalties … is ludicrous.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren
Facebook
State Rep. Charlie Geren

The Geren bill requires local government lawsuits against water polluters to be filed no later than five years after the company reports a violation or receives an enforcement notice. But Highlands and Channelview residents knew little to nothing about the waste pits for decades, in part because the successor companies didn’t bother to make the issue known to the community or regulators.

Young said her organization, the San Jacinto River Coalition, recently completed testing of the soil in 15 yards along the San Jacinto River in Highlands and Channelview. All 15 tested positive for the specific kind of dioxin leaching from the waste pits. The Harris County lawsuit, she said, was the first time many in the community were even aware of the waste pits—a popular spot for fishing, crabbing and, as one older man testified today, water-skiing in his youth.

County- or city-led lawsuits seeking penalties from water polluters are relatively rare, but Harris County, with its vast petrochemical facilities, 20 known Superfund sites and loose rules that allow homes next to industry, is probably the most litigious. In the last 19 years, the county has issued 18,000 violation notices to companies and filed 205 civil actions, said Cathy Sisk, a retired environmental attorney with Harris County. She said the county only resorted to the lawsuit because the three successor companies hadn’t done anything to clean up the site, even going so far as to defy EPA’s orders.

“We feel like in those cases we need a hammer,” she said.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, made a pitch for keeping local control. “Government is best when it’s closest to the people,” he said. Sometimes, state officials are “removed from the passion of the folks who actually live in the neighborhoods, where we work, where we breathe, where we play and live.”

HB 1794 was left pending. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1509, by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) has yet to be assigned a committee.

Be Different small

Texas prosecutes kids for missing school more zealously than any other state, according to a new report released this morning, and poor, minority and special education students are disproportionately targeted.

Texas Appleseed, a social justice advocacy group, authored the report on truancy prosecution, finding it a punitive and ineffective practice that has done little to increase attendance and graduation rates while dragging juveniles into the adult criminal system.

Just one of the astounding facts revealed in “Class, Not Court: Reconsidering Texas’ Criminalization of Truancy,” is that in 2013 Texas prosecuted approximately 115,000 truancy cases–more than twice the number of all other states combined.

These prosecutions fall heavily on minority students. In the 2013-14 school year, almost 20 percent of reported Failure to Attend School court referrals statewide involved African-American students, despite the fact that African-American students represent less than 13 percent of the student body statewide. Likewise, 64 percent of reported cases involving Hispanic students, though they represent only 52 percent of the student body.

The report suggest that a better, more effective solution for handling truancy cases may be for schools and courts to provide prevention and intervention services for at-risk children to get them back into school.

“We know the most effective programs to address truancy really hone in on the underlying reasons that a student is not attending school and addressing those underlying causes of chronic absenteeism,” said Deborah Fowler, the executive director of Texas Appleseed. “Those are the things that are missing in the Texas system. In Texas, we have a very court-centric approach that is very one-size-fits-all.”

The court approach, which involves fines students can’t pay and criminal records that can follow youth into adulthood, often fails to grapple with the realities kids are facing: chronic health problems, homelessness, family violence and the need to work for survival.

“We see when we talk to families that there are complex and varied reasons that kids miss school, and it often doesn’t really resemble what I think most people commonly think of when they think of truancy,” Fowler said.

Students with disabilities also make up a significant percentage of students charged with truancy. While special education students represented only 9 percent of students statewide in the 2013-14 school year, they represented 13 percent of court referrals for Failure to Attend School.

According to the report, many students with disabilities miss school to receive essential disability-related treatment from doctors and speech, occupational and physical therapists. Sometimes schools, under pressure from the state to meet attendance goals, refuse to excuse absences for therapies that parents and outside providers believe are essential, but schools do not prioritize.

“Every time a student misses school, even for something that should be excused, you run the risk of sloppy record-keeping in the attendance office. You also run the risk of a parent or a student forgetting to turn in their excuse and a higher chance of being referred for those absences,” said Dustin Rynders, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas.

Each truancy fine can run up to $500. Because 79 percent of those charged are economically disadvantaged, many of the tickets go unpaid. If the student’s family can’t pay the fines and court costs, that student could face arrest and incarceration when she turns 17.

“The students who are most likely to be sent to court and fined are the students who can least afford it. We have an overrepresentation of students who are classified as economically disadvantaged going to court for truancy cases. So it’s families that are least able to pay fines that are getting saddled with these fines,” said Fowler.

The report also describes another troubling sanction: Some judges are ordering students to “unenroll” from school and take the GED. In other words, courts in Texas are ordering children to drop out of school as a punishment for not going to school. Over a three-year period, 6,423 students who were ordered to drop out and take the GED then failed the test.

truancy chartThe report also provides suggestions for better ways to handle truancy cases. Texas Appleseed encouraged legislators, school districts and Texas Education Agency to decriminalize truancy so that it is no longer treated as a crime in adult criminal court, make all court referrals discretionary, and require effective school-based truancy prevention and intervention. The executive summary also emphasized the importance of requiring schools to produce complete data on truancy in a timely matter.

“What we have suggested is that the Legislature consider requiring schools to take a graduated approach before filing a case so they would have an initial intervention with the family that could simply consist of meeting with the family , talking to them and figuring out what’s going on and see what’s causing the chronic absences. If that didn’t work, then the next approach would be to refer them to a truancy prevention class or to a counselor or to a community based service that the family may need to really get at the underlying causes,” says Fowler.

Reporting data has become a problem. School districts are required to accurately report their truancy filings, but only half do, according to the report.

“We know that truancy reform is definitely on the radar for our legislature this session and we hope that ensuring that school districts report data accurately will be among the issues that the legislature addresses when it comes to the way truancy is handled in Texas”, says Fowler.

But Susan Steeg, a Travis County justice of the peace who handles truancy cases for three Austin-area school districts, defended the current approach toward truancy. She argues there’s no other proven way to get students back into school.

“What is on the table now is to repeal that law and there is nothing that is going to fill that void,” Steeg said. And what I’m afraid of is all the programs that we have in place with the courts that have juvenile court management won’t have a way to get those kids into court for the interventions that they sorely need.”

Steeg also defended the court-ordered GED tests.

“We see a lot of students where traditional classes are not in their best interest. We have several grade alternative choices here in Travis County. Besides GED courses, we have several diploma programs that are open to them, such as Austin Can Academy, American YouthWorks, and many of these programs are four-hour days, so the student can work part time also receive their high school diploma,” she said.

Fifteen bills filed related to truancy reform are in session now.

Fifteen bills filed related to truancy reform have been filed this legislative session. The House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee will hear a host of truancy-related bills on March 11.

Troy Fraser
State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay)

It’s never been easy fighting powerful polluters in Texas. A bill approved by a Senate committee today would make it even harder. With a big push from the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Association of Business, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 today for legislation “streamlining” (read: weakening) the process that communities and environmental groups can use to challenge permits to pollute. (Democrats Rodney Ellis and Carlos Uresti as well as Republican Robert Duncan were the ‘no’ votes.)

“We are very disappointed by the committee’s vote today,” said Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger. “The deck is already stacked against residents when a powerful polluter applies for a permit to discharge chemicals in to our air, water and land.”

Senate Bill 957 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) would put limits on contested case hearings, mini-trials in which each administrative law judges hear testimony and evidence from each side. Environmental groups already complain that the process is flawed: The judges can only offer recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That agency, run by corporate-friendly Rick Perry appointees, often ignores or downplays the judge’s proposals.

However, SB 957 would weaken it even further. Fraser’s proposal would shift the burden of proof from the company seeking the permit—often some of the most lucrative and powerful corporations in the world—to the protestant, often a hastily-formed grassroots group or an environmental organization. The bill would also strictly limit how long the contested case hearing could last; limit who could participate; narrow the scope of the hearing; and eliminate discovery.

But Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican who voted for the bill in committee, said it would do nothing to diminish democratic participation.

“The bill in no way lessens the ability of the public to fully participate in the environmental permitting process,” Estes said.

“That’s a true statement,” responded Fraser. “That’s why it’s a good bill.”

A few minutes later, Estes explained to veteran consumer advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith, using an analogy, why he thinks the burden of proof should be shifted to citizens.

ESTES: “Let’s say you get accused of jaywalking. Should you have to prove that you didn’t jaywalk or should your accuser be the one to have to prove you jaywalked?”

SMITTY: “That’s the criminal standard, Senator. And this is a civil issue.”

ESTES: “You can be accused of all types of things, rightly or wrongly.”

The good news for opponents of the bill is that it’s unlikely to receive enough support to bring it up in the full Senate as-is—a political reality its author acknowledged.

“I think this bill has got to have some magic happen to get it up on the Senate floor,” Fraser said.

Patrick Michels

The Lead:

School vouchers will be big today at the Capitol. The Senate Education Committee will hear two bills this morning that would set up a voucher (or school choice, as proponents call it) program. Sen. Dan Patrick’s SB 23 and Sen. Donna Campbell’s SB 1575 would permit businesses to divert tax money into a scholarship fund that would pay for kids in public schools to attend private ones. But that’s not all. This afternoon, the House Ways and Means Committee will hear a similar bill, HB  3245, by Rep. Bill Callegari. The argument against these bills, as with many voucher plans, is that they would deprive public schools of much-needed funds.

Voucher-hearing day couldn’t have come at a worse time for proponents. It seems unlikely that a voucher bill can pass the House after the lower chamber overwhelmingly rejected vouchers during the budget debate last week. Sen. Patrick may think that school choice is  the “civil rights issue of our time,” as he frequently calls it, but he may have to wait at least another session to see a voucher plan implemented.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Texas Enterprise fund has been a boon to the campaign accounts of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, reports the San Antonio Express-News. Donors associated with companies that received job-creation grants from the Enterprise Fund donated $3.6 to Texas’ top three lawmakers, according to a detailed report by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

2. Casinos will get their biennial hearing and this time around two of the three big players are in talks together, writes the Quorum Report.

3. The Texas Tribune reports that the political drama surrounding the University of Texas continues, with Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) calling on Gov. Rick Perry to turn down the heat. Don’t hold your breath for that.

Line of the day:

“In this day and time, I recognize that people of the same sex become partners. I think there’s a recognition nationally that we could do better [in] how we treat people that have same-sex relationships.” – Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) on legislation to add same sex language to laws on sex.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. There are four, yes four, committees discussing big environmental issues in the House and Senate today.

2. Voucher bills in House and Senate committees.

3. Pharmacists are pushing a bill—SB 1013—up in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee today that would allow pharmacists to administer vaccines. The doctors aren’t crazy about this idea. Should be a fun debate.

3. The House Public Education Committee will hear the Texas Education Agency sunset bill, which would reform the agency. The committee is also scheduled to debate cutting funds to districts that offer same-sex partner benefits. Maybe they should listen to Whitmire about that.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Committees are back up and running today, including the Senate Finance Committee, which will continue to work through agency recommendations for the budget. Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said he’s shooting to get the bill out of committee and headed to the Senate floor by next Wednesday. Of course the senators took an extra long weekend (poor dears got a little flack for that), so we’ll see if they make their own deadline on the only action the Legislature must accomplish during the session.

Weekend Headlines:

1. Former Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia won the runoff race for Texas Senate against state Rep. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston), as the Texas Tribune reports. Garcia will fill the seat previously held by the late Sen. Mario Gallegos.

2. Major changes may be in order for the Texas Water Development Board, will handle billions of dollars in the coming years. The Austin American-Statesman reports that Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) wants to restructure the board before all that money starts to, ahem, flow. With all the cronyism in state government in recent years, some people are naturally suspicious of this move.

Line of the Day:

“It would be irresponsible to add more Texans and dump more taxpayer dollars into an unsustainable system that is broken and already consumes a quarter of our budget,” —Perry spokesperson Lucy Nashed to the Austin American-Statesman about Medicaid expansion.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House Elections Committee is set to hear a large slate of bills today, including a bill by Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) to give local prosecutors the ability to investigate election fraud—instead of the Attorney General. That may sound benign, but with all the controversy in recent years over supposed election fraud—and the efforts of groups like King Street Patriots, a Houston tea party group, and its True the Vote project—providing more outlets for voter fraud investigations has political implications.

2. The Ways and Means House committee will hold a hearing on the sporting good tax, which has been substantially used to fund programs outside of its intended use—state parks. They could use some extra cash.

3. The Senate Finance Committee continues to make its way closer to pulling together a budget bill. Today the committee will discuss recommendations on higher education and criminal justice.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio)

As oil and gas companies descend on South Texas, lawmakers are beginning to confront the new chaos brought on by the Eagle Ford Shale boom.

The recently formed Eagle Ford Shale Legislative Caucus met Wednesday, led by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) to discuss the shale play’s economic impact on South Texas—but the conversation veered to the day-to-day issues affecting residents most, like quiet country roads that become an industrial zones without any notice.

Thomas Tunstall, who directs the Center for Community and Business Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the caucus should try to promote long-term stability in the fast-growing boomtowns around the shale, so the families lured there for work will want to stay.

It’s been 25 years since Texas has produced this much oil, Tunstall said, and 1,600 wells were completed in the Eagle Ford area last year. A study produced at UTSA last year pegged the Eagle Ford’s regional economic impact at $25 billion, and supported 47,000 jobs.

DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler said he has formed a coalition, along with other South Texas officials, “to get the idea across that we need help.” Fowler said they want to spend some of the tax revenue generated by the Eagle Ford on road repairs, rather than put it all into the Rainy Day Fund.

“The Rainy Day Fund, as big as it is, the damages are not being paid for at the county level,” Fowler said.

Zaffirini and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) worried about housing and schools in the fast-growing areas around the shale.

“We really need to look at this in a comprehensive approach to sustainability planning,” Van de Putte said. Zaffirini said students might drop out of high school or college to work for oil and gas companies. She said she’d like to see colleges offer some courses on worksites.

The Lead:

Gov. Rick Perry gave his State of the State address on Tuesday, which followed the usual trend: Perry claimed credit for the health of the Texas economy and outlined a plan to maintain the status quo. The Senate Finance Committee will meet today to discuss health and human services. The meeting should be interesting given Perry’s strong denunciation of Medicaid expansion in yesterday’s speech. The House will meet too, but we’re not expecting much until committees are named, hopefully in the next few days.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Gov. Rick Perry gave his State of the State speech yesterday, emphasizing specific conservative policy items such as school vouchers, tax cuts and shunning Medicaid expansion. Perry largely steered clear of social issues, reports the Observer’s Olivia Messer.

2. In his speech, Perry supported the UT System expanding Permanent University Funds to South Texas institutions. If passed by the Legislature, the money could be integral in establishing a medical school in the underserved region, according to the Texas Tribune.

3. The Dallas Morning News wrote about a news conference in which people who have lost a family member who had been texting while driving spoke. The families are supporting legislation that would ban texting while driving.

Line of the Day:

Texas will not drive millions more into an unsustainable system, a system that will drive this state into bankruptcy.” —Gov. Rick Perry on Medicaid during yesterday’s State of the State.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The Senate Finance Committee will discuss health and human services today. Medicaid expansion may be up for discussion. In his speech,  Perry made clear his opposition to expanding Medicaid under Obamacare to adults earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. That would cause the state to lose out on a pretty sweet deal—for the first three years the federal government would cover most of the costs.

In Another Blow to Public Schools, Hochberg Leaving Legislature

Facing major education challenges next session, the House will have a tough time replacing its education expert.

Scott Hochberg was none too happy that everyone called him a nerd. “You can’t think of something to call me?” he groused more than once. But it was hard to think of anything else to call the state legislator with his messy white hair, glasses and encyclopedic knowledge of school finance law. In a House chamber of cheerleaders and quarterbacks, he often proved that knowing the facts and doing your homework could actually bring power and influence. As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the vice chair of the Public Education Committee, Hochberg seemed a living example of Revenge of the Nerds.

Until last session, when he watched helplessly as the Texas House chose to make unprecedented cuts to public education, and the leadership shut him out of school finance negotiations, making cuts less equitable across the state.

So maybe it’s not a huge surprise that today Hochberg announced he won’t seek re-election after almost 20 years in the state Legislature.

Hochberg is one of 25 incumbents so far to announce they aren’t coming back. But his decision may have the most widespread impact, particularly for education advocates. The funding mechanisms around public schools and universities are mind-boggling complicated and irrational. Hochberg was the undisputed expert on how the laws worked. He often tangled with the Texas Education Agency, following up on how policy was actually getting implemented. He spent much of his time on the floor translating and explaining the rules to less-informed colleagues. Because education has traditionally been a bipartisan area, Hochberg often had Republicans sponsoring his bills in the Senate and supporting him in the House—most notably working with Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

Last session, however, everything blew up. With an ultraconservative Republican super-majority and a $27 billion budget shortfall, things turned nasty fast. Spectators watched Hochberg’s and Eissler’s friendship implode as the two men battled on school finance plans.

Hochberg was kept out of the closed door meetings on school finance and ultimately had almost no say in the plan the House backed—a plan that cut the same percentage from all school districts, despite vast funding inequalities. He had little say on the Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers ultimately decided to cut $5.4 billion from public schools. Then, adding insult to injury, the Legislature passed redistricting maps that put Hochberg in a district with fellow Democrat Hubert Vo. While those maps have now been redrawn by federal courts, it’s hardly shocking to think Hochberg’s downtrodden.

In his announcement, Hochberg writes, “My decision should not be thought of as any commentary on the current political environment, the challenges ahead, or, for that matter, the disappointment of soon having to endure the designated hitter rule when watching hometown Houston baseball.”

But regardless of his reason, Hochberg’s departure leaves an enormous gap in education expertise—at a time when the Legislature can least afford it. The 82nd legislative session was bleak, but the 83rd will likely be worse. Next time around, lawmakers will actually have to deal with the state’s structural deficit and tax-policy problems, which means figuring out a better system to pay for public schools. Meanwhile, they’ll probably also have to figure out a new way to distribute money to the schools. School districts across Texas are suing the state in several different lawsuits around both inadequacy and inequity in funding.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is clearly the chosen member to take the reins from Hochberg, but it’s bound to be a tough job. During the session, it fell to Aycock to try, unsuccessfully, to pass a fiscal matters bill containing school finance language. While Aycock is undoubtedly smart and eager, he’s only in his third term. Hochberg had the trust of his colleagues, that he both understood all sides and would explain the policy options fairly.

The House will dearly miss its resident nerd.

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