Floor Play

The Top Redistricting Fight Moments

Members came out of the woodwork Wednesday to fight for their parties—and pieces of turf.

For most of the legislative session, you can forget that there are 150 members in the state House. After all, most of them stay quiet. Most don’t take visible roles in debate or negotiations. Freshmen in particular are still learning the game and policies. But make the debate entirely about politics, threaten their turf or their friends, and the most forgettable of lawmaker comes out swinging.

The House spent almost 16 hours Wednesday, going tooth and nail on redistricting. The process, drawing new districts at least once every ten years that reflect the latest Census data, is almost entirely about partisan power and incumbent advantage. The goal is to make as many seats “safe” for the ruling party as possible, to ensure dominance over the decade. The map that passed last night gives Republicans a strong advantage overall and protects most incumbents—although with a supermajority the GOP couldn’t protect everyone. 12 Republicans remain “paired” together in single districts, meaning one will have to either move or there will be a primary. Democrats aren’t happy that the map takes one representative away from Harris County, traditionally a Democratic stronghold, and leaves two of their members paired as well. 

Every other debate in the House is ostensibly about what’s best for the state’s residents—school kids, business owners. We watch as a few active members argue that their bill makes the state better somehow. Redistricting, meanwhile, is all about power and politics. Nasty and personal, it seemed more members got involved in the fight over politics than in any major piece of policy so far this session. 

So here are some of the most exciting and bizarre fights of the evening—featuring some members you might not see again for the decade.

Tracy King vs. Jose Aliseda

Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, wanted to keep more of the district he currently represents, so he proposed moving freshman Republican Jose Aliseda’s district over a bit, which would include slightly more registered voters with Hispanic last-names—and slightly fewer Republican voters. It was a “negligible” change according to Republican Redistricting Committee Chair Burt Solomons, and Aliseda expected it would impact around 600 votes. But it was a close race last time, and Aliseda decided to mount a partisan attack.

“You understand I’m a freshmen?” he said to King.

“It’s painfully obvious,” King shot back.

“Any reduction in my Republican numbers coud affect a possibility about [reelection],” Aliseda said, unaware, apparently, that members normally do not make their partisan bids quite so blatant.

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, argued that Aliseda was actually opposed to the change because it would include more Hispanic voters in his district. (The move would have decreased the total number of Hispanic residents, but because many of those residents are non-citizens and can’t vote.) “You’re fighting this amendment because it actually increases the number of Hispanics that can vote in your election,” Villarreal argued.

“I’m opposed to the fact that it changes my district to a more Democratic district,” Aliseda eventually explained.

When his pleas for protection fell on deaf Democratic ears, Aliseda then took it a step further. I would ask that the other Republican members in the House and the other freshmen join me in voting against this amendment,” he said. The amendment failed, not surprisingly, though Aliseda wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. “Mr. King and I have been getting along until now,” he said, adding that King was “a brother from another mother.”

When King called him out for making things so partisan, Aliseda shrugged it off. Redistricting, he said, is “a political process, one of the most political thing we do.” 

No need to convince us.

Valley Democrats vs. Aaron Peña

Aaron Peña isn’t popular with Democrats these days. After all, he was elected as a Democrat and then switched parties, helping give the Republicans a super-majority. So they were especially upset when his new district, shaped a bit like a Transformer figurine, cut out most of McAllen Democrat Veronica Gonzales’ district—the new maps give her only has 1.5 percent of the same territory she currently represents. She will likely still win since the region is heavily Democratic, but Valley Democrats weren’t happy. While the map was supposed to have been drawn with input from each region, no one in the Valley delegation said they had offered such a plan. Unspoken was the belief that Peña was somehow responsible for the new set of districts, since it drew his district to maximize conservative votes.

Gonzales offered an amendment that would have restored the districts to their current borders. Even that was settling in some ways—many Ds think there should be a new Hispanic-majority district in the region. But Peña took the mike to argue against the amendment.

“I think Rep Gonzales is a fine member,” Peña said. “She’s a liberal member but that’s fine. I’m a conservative member but that’s fine.” A hushed boo went through the chamber. Peña argued that the plan was fair and that “things have gotten a little too personal here.”

But they were just getting started. Democratic Rep. Joe Farias took the stage, telling everyone he wanted to get past the “ranting and raving about Republicans and Democrats.”

“Under what party did Peña run this past election?” he asked Gonzales.

“He ran as a Democrat,” she replied.

“He bamboozled all the folks who voted for him!” Farias exclaimed. Boos and hoots echoed off the walls. Gonzales, wisely, refused to respond, except to say, “There’s been some hanky panky going on.” 

The amendment failed.

Black Caucus vs. Burt Solomons

While the biggest fight on redistricting will likely be in court, Democrats eagerly laid the groundwork for cases against the proposed maps. Every exchange was recorded into the official House Journal, so that it could be used in court. When Democratic Rep. Mark Veasey found out the inclusions would be automatic, he couldn’t contain himself. “Sweet!” he exclaimed with a grin at the podium. “Thank you!”

The Democrats will try to show that “communities of interest” were split, and particularly that the map does not maximize the representation of minority groups like African-Americans and Latinos. Early on, Democrats began arguing the map was “retrogressive”—meaning it unfairly denies representation to minority groups. Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, argued Solomons had not fairly counted incarcerated populations, who he said should count as part of the population in the last place of residence. 

In Dallas County, black Democrats argued that the map swapped out a black district for a Hispanic one. Black Caucus chair Sylvestor Turner spoke as ten or so of the caucus members stood behind him for support. “We are not here to participate in our own demise,” he said. “We are not interested in being an ineffective group.”

He told Solomons the map was “outright retrogression,” explicitly saying the Black Caucus did not approve—and was not sufficiently included in the discussion. It’s the kind of statement that can bolster legal arguments against the map.

Solomons pointed out that his office was close by Turner’s. “I could have come down to your office and you could have come down to my office,” Solmons said.

“You’re doing what a good lawyer does,” he added. “You’re creating reasonable doubt.”

We’ll have to wait to see if the courts agree.

Could Bills Allowing Teacher Furloughs and Pay Cuts Prompt Unionization?

"When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing," says education commissioner.

Supporters of House Bill 400 have expended quite a bit of energy trying to explain that the legislation is supposed to protect Texas teachers. Rep. Rob Eissler, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee and the bill’s sponsor, even wrote an op-ed extolling the virtues of the measure. Somehow, teachers’ groups still aren’t buying that message—probably because the bill in question gives more power to administrators and allows school districts to reduce teacher pay, furlough teachers and fire teachers on the last day of the school year. It also removes the class size limits currently in place for kindergarten through fourth grade, replacing the 22:1 ratio with a hard limit of 25 in those grades. As for class size limits for remedial students? Gone entirely.

In the face of drastic budget cuts to public schools, superintendents see the measure as vital to keeping the school doors open. Administrators are counting on the legislation, which gives districts a lot of cost-cutting powers, as the only way to balance their budget, while teachers’ groups are deriding the bills as one of the worst education measures in memory. The executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association told the Austin American-Statesman that the bill amounts to “gratuitous violence.” The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Tuesday—and a majority of the House members (all Republicans) have already signed on as either authors or co-authors.

If HB 400 does become law, it will mark a major break with the Texas tradition of protecting teacher contracts. In a state without real collective bargaining, state law has set a reasonably high bar for teacher treatment. By and large, teachers haven’t faced widescale pay cuts or furloughs—and there haven’t been calls for unionization. If we remove those protections, teachers will have to fight with their school district for specific contract planks. And if they start making those fights together, well—that’s not far from the collective bargaining approach that Texas has avoided. Teachers are, after all, notoriously well-organized nationwide, with a lot of money to expend on unionization efforts.

Far-fetched, you say?

Not according to the commissioner of education. The commissioner, Robert Scott, has spent the legislative session navigating the murky waters of being both a gubernatorial appointee and an advocate for education. He’s argued that the state can’t make budget cuts and raise expectations and he’s argued for more funding. He’s also devoted plenty of time to arguing for accountability systems and using anecdotal examples of school inefficiencies. He’s got detractors and supporters on both sides of the aisle.

Scott recently took part in a Texas Monthly roundtable discussion on education, featuring six advocates across the political spectrum. The published and edited piece focuses heavily on funding for schools. But being the nice guys that they are, the Monthly also included the complete unedited transcript of the debate—which includes some lengthy and fascinating discussions, including one on HB 400.

At one point, Scott argued relations between teachers and administrators were getting better in terms of labor-management relations. “The fact that we are able to, as labor, management, teachers, administrators, chambers of commerce, sit down today and discuss alternative compensation in teacher support in ways we wouldn’t have done five years ago is a huge movement in labor-management, district-teacher relations,” he told the others at the table.

When the participants began to discuss teacher contracts, Scott began to discuss “home rule school bills”—those like HB 400 that give the school district administration more power. “When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing,” Scott said to Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for teachers’ union Texas AFT. “I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty-free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?”

He may not have to wait long to find out.

 

Here’s the entire exchange between Scott and Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for Texas AFT:

MALFARO: I agree. We shouldn’t have collective bargaining in every school district in this state. Teachers should be able to sit down with their superintendent and negotiate a contract.

SCOTT: It’s funny you mention that, because that’s where I believe the home rule school bill will actually wind up. When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing. I think that’s where you wind up.

MALFARO: I don’t think that bill is going to make it out of both chambers.

SCOTT:Well, you never know. I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?

MALFARO: Why don’t you talk to Rob Eissler about writing that into the bill?

SCOTT:I’m not going to advocate that. I just think that’s the natural reaction of teachers.

Could Bills Allowing Teacher Furloughs and Pay Cuts Prompt Unionization?

"Your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights, are going to wind up organizing," says the state commissioner of education.

Updated April 27, 9 a.m.

Supporters of House Bill 400 have expended quite a bit of energy trying to explain that the legislation is supposed to protect Texas teachers. Rep. Rob Eissler, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee and the bill’s sponsor, even wrote an op-ed extolling the virtues of the measure. Somehow, teachers’ groups still aren’t buying that message—probably because the bill in question gives more power to administrators and allows school districts to reduce teacher pay, furlough teachers and fire teachers on the last day of the school year. It also removes the class size limits currently in place for kindergarten through fourth grade, replacing the 22:1 ratio with a hard limit of 25 in those grades. As for class size limits for remedial students? Gone entirely.

In the face of drastic budget cuts to public schools, superintendents see the measure as vital to keeping the school doors open. Administrators are counting on the legislation, which gives districts a lot of cost-cutting powers, as the only way to balance their budget, while teachers’ groups are deriding the bills as one of the worst education measures in memory. The executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association told the Austin American-Statesman that the bill amounts to “gratuitous violence.” The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Tuesday—and a majority of the House members (all Republicans) have already signed on as either authors or co-authors.

If HB 400 does become law, it will mark a major break with the Texas tradition of protecting teacher contracts. In a state without real collective bargaining, state law has set a reasonably high bar for teacher treatment. By and large, teachers haven’t faced widescale pay cuts or furloughs—and there haven’t been calls for unionization. If we remove those protections, teachers will have to fight with their school district for specific contract planks. And if they start making those fights together, well—that’s not far from the collective bargaining approach that Texas has avoided. Teachers are, after all, notoriously well-organized nationwide, with a lot of money to expend on unionization efforts.

Far-fetched, you say?

Not according to the commissioner of education. The commissioner, Robert Scott, has spent the legislative session navigating the murky waters of being both a gubernatorial appointee and an advocate for education. He’s argued that the state can’t make budget cuts and raise expectations and he’s argued for more funding. He’s also devoted plenty of time to arguing for accountability systems and using anecdotal examples of school inefficiencies. He’s got detractors and supporters on both sides of the aisle.

Scott recently took part in a Texas Monthly roundtable discussion on education, featuring six advocates across the political spectrum. The published and edited piece focuses heavily on funding for schools. But being the nice guys that they are, the Monthly also included the complete unedited transcript of the debate—which includes some lengthy and fascinating discussions, including one on HB 400.

At one point, Scott argued relations between teachers and administrators were getting better in terms of labor-management relations. “The fact that we are able to, as labor, management, teachers, administrators, chambers of commerce, sit down today and discuss alternative compensation in teacher support in ways we wouldn’t have done five years ago is a huge movement in labor-management, district-teacher relations,” he told the others at the table.

When the participants began to discuss teacher contracts, Scott began to discuss “home rule school bills”—those like HB 400 that give the school district administration more power. “When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing,” Scott said to Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for teachers’ union Texas AFT. “I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty-free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?”

He may not have to wait long to find out.

 

Here’s the entire exchange between Scott and Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for Texas AFT:

MALFARO: I agree. We should have collective bargaining in every school district in this state. Teachers should be able to sit down with their superintendent and negotiate a contract.

SCOTT: It’s funny you mention that, because that’s where I believe the home rule school bill will actually wind up. When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing. I think that’s where you wind up.

MALFARO: I don’t think that bill is going to make it out of both chambers.

SCOTT:Well, you never know. I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?

MALFARO: Why don’t you talk to Rob Eissler about writing that into the bill?

SCOTT:I’m not going to advocate that. I just think that’s the natural reaction of teachers.

Correction: Texas Monthly’s transcript quoted Malfaro as saying “We shouldn’t have collective bargaining in every school district.” It should have read “We should have collective bargaining in every school district.” They have updated their transcript and I’ve updated this post.

Could Bills Allowing Teacher Furloughs and Pay Cuts Prompt Unionization?

"When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing," says education commissioner.

Supporters of House Bill 400 have expended quite a bit of energy trying to explain that the legislation is supposed to protect Texas teachers. Rep. Rob Eissler, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee and the bill’s sponsor, even wrote an op-ed extolling the virtues of the measure. Somehow, teachers’ groups still aren’t buying that message—probably because the bill in question gives more power to administrators and allows school districts to reduce teacher pay, furlough teachers and fire teachers on the last day of the school year. It also removes the class size limits currently in place for kindergarten through fourth grade, replacing the 22:1 ratio with a hard limit of 25 in those grades. As for class size limits for remedial students? Gone entirely.

In the face of drastic budget cuts to public schools, superintendents see the measure as vital to keeping the school doors open. Administrators are counting on the legislation, which gives districts a lot of cost-cutting powers, as the only way to balance their budget, while teachers’ groups are deriding the bills as one of the worst education measures in memory. The executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association told the Austin American-Statesman that the bill amounts to “gratuitous violence.” The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Tuesday—and a majority of the House members (all Republicans) have already signed on as either authors or co-authors.

If HB 400 does become law, it will mark a major break with the Texas tradition of protecting teacher contracts. In a state without real collective bargaining, state law has set a reasonably high bar for teacher treatment. By and large, teachers haven’t faced widescale pay cuts or furloughs—and there haven’t been calls for unionization. If we remove those protections, teachers will have to fight with their school district for specific contract planks. And if they start making those fights together, well—that’s not far from the collective bargaining approach that Texas has avoided. Teachers are, after all, notoriously well-organized nationwide, with a lot of money to expend on unionization efforts.

Far-fetched, you say? 

Not according to the commissioner of education. The commissioner, Robert Scott, has spent the legislative session navigating the murky waters of being both a gubernatorial appointee and an advocate for education. He’s argued that the state can’t make budget cuts and raise expectations and he’s argued for more funding. He’s also devoted plenty of time to arguing for accountability systems and using anecdotal examples of school inefficiencies. He’s got detractors and supporters on both sides of the aisle.

Scott recently took part in a Texas Monthly roundtable discussion on education, featuring six advocates across the political spectrum. The published and edited piece focuses heavily on funding for schools. But being the nice guys that they are, the Monthly also included the complete unedited transcript of the debate—which includes some lengthy and fascinating discussions, including one on HB 400. 

At one point, Scott argued relations between teachers and administrators were getting better in terms of labor-management relations. “The fact that we are able to, as labor, management, teachers, administrators, chambers of commerce, sit down today and discuss alternative compensation in teacher support in ways we wouldn’t have done five years ago is a huge movement in labor-management, district-teacher relations,” he told the others at the table.

When the participants began to discuss teacher contracts, Scott began to discuss “home rule school bills”—those like HB 400 that give the school district administration more power. “When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing,” Scott said to Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for teachers’ union Texas AFT. “I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty-free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?”

He may not have to wait long to find out.

 

Here’s the entire exchange between Scott and Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for Texas AFT:

MALFARO: I agree. We shouldn’t have collective bargaining in every school district in this state. Teachers should be able to sit down with their superintendent and negotiate a contract.

SCOTT: It’s funny you mention that, because that’s where I believe the home rule school bill will actually wind up. When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing. I think that’s where you wind up.

MALFARO: I don’t think that bill is going to make it out of both chambers.

SCOTT:Well, you never know. I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?

MALFARO: Why don’t you talk to Rob Eissler about writing that into the bill?

SCOTT:I’m not going to advocate that. I just think that’s the natural reaction of teachers.

Relative “Heroism”: The Senate’s Plan to Cut Just $4 Billion from Schools

Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee passed an education finance plan giving schools significantly more than the House budget

You might have expected the mood to be awkward Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee. After all, the lawmakers were trying cut $4 billion from public schools in Texas and begin to fix a failed school finance system—that they’d created. The cuts will come to every school district in the state, including those that have spent the last five years scraping by on a fraction of what other, similar districts get. The bill wasn’t as drastic as the House version, where members cut $8 billion from school districts, but I expected most of the senators to be seriously concerned.

Instead, the mood was, at times, hesitatingly triumphant.

“People said we couldn’t do it but we have,” said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who oversaw the committee’s work on school funding and is carrying the bill.

“This is an heroic effort,” lauded Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Longview, who has spoken out against drastic cuts.

Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden took it a step further. “I think this bill has the potential of saving public education in Texas,” he told the members. “If we don’t pass the bill, I think public education as we know it is in big trouble.”

Of course, the subtext here is “The House version stinks”—and if it passes, public education is in trouble. In terms of the overall cut to public ed, there’s no question that the Senate has taken the more moderate approach, cutting just around half of what the House cut. The commissioner of education told the Legislature that anything more than a $4 billion cut to public ed would be fundamentally unsustainable. The Senate listened; the House did not. 

But in the world of school finance there is always the follow-up question: How do the cuts get delivered to individual school districts? 

As I’ve written before, the state’s school finance system is broken in many ways. Thanks to a 2006 tax-swap that led to school finance reforms, most school districts get funded based on a “target revenue system” that’s based on, among other things, on past property tax collections. The target revenue system, which was supposed to be temporary, has led to vast inequalities between districts. But no one has been able to work on a long-term solution—which would update funding formulas based on the actual costs of education and move districts onto those formulas. Currently those formulas are woefully underfunded and only the very poorest districts get funded through them. “We can look in the mirror” for the system’s current problems, noted Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Woodlands, rather wryly.

Advocates hoped that the cuts to education might be a chance to at least deliver equity to a system that, according to many, is inadequately funded.

Shapiro—who carried the legislation that created this rather irrational system—says her ultimate goal is to get away from what’s become an arbitrary target revenue system and put more districts back onto formulas. Under her plan, 650 districts will move off of target revenue and onto formula. (Currently only around 120 districts get their funding that way.) But equity advocates aren’t happy about the Senate plan because it still cuts from the very poor districts.

The Senate committee called it a “share the pain model.” Every district in the state gets cut somewhat in the plan, but those with more money get cut more. Of the $4 billion in cuts, the first $1 billion comes from about a 1.5 percent cut to all school districts. The other $3 billion comes from districts on target revenue. But districts only get cut until they’re receiving the amount they would get under the formulas. The wealthiest districts can get cut up to 8 or 9 percent under the plan—but they’ll still be getting more than everyone else. Thanks to an amendment from Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, the bill does require that the target revenue system end by 2017.

When Democratic Sens. Eddie Lucio and Chuy Hinojosa raised the issue of equity, Shapiro shrugged her shoulders. “This bill is about meeting a financial crisis,” she told her colleagues. “That is what we were focusing on.”

“When will equity in school funding by a priority for the Texas Legislature?” asked Lucio, noting that “it isn’t a priority when we have the money.” He didn’t exactly get an answer.

In the mean time, there’s no guarantee that this bill will make it through the House. The House has appeared firmly unwilling to spend additional revenue, and senators agreed that the bill’s key provision—that education only get cut by $4 billion—was non-negotiable. 

For a few senators, the $4 billion cut to education—almost 10 percent of current funding—was still too abysmal to support. Democrats, as well as Republican Sen. Bob Deuell, voted against the measure, saying it hurt too many school districts and didn’t do enough in terms of equity.

Democratic Sen. John Whitmire pled with his colleagues. ”I would propose that we find $4 billion,” he said, pointing to the Rainy Day fund. “I would do whatever it takes. I would work with you around the clock.”

“The people of Texas expect better,” he declared.

But then again, this is a session of lowered expectations.

$5 Billion Found in the Senate Couch Cushions [Updated]

"This is a one time fix," says Sen. Robert Duncan of his list of potential revenue.

I co-wrote this blog post with Alexa Garcia-Ditta.

Update April 20, 7 p.m.: The Senate Finance Committee passed Sen. Robert Duncan’s bill on “non-tax” revenue by a vote of 13 to 2. Republican Sens. Dan Patrick and Jane Nelson were the only two “no” votes on the commitee. Patrick said he will vote against the bill on the floor as well unless they change the measure that speeds up business tax collections.

***

 

After weeks of searching the couch cushions, the Senate finally revealed what it had found. Tuesday, Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, revealed his long-awaited list of non-tax revenue ideas to help balance the Senate version of the budget this afternoon. The list totaled almost $5 billion in extra revenue.

The Senate has been on a search for ways to avoid drastic budget cuts to state programs like Medicaid and public education. Struggling with a $23 billion budget shortfall for the 2012-2013 biennium, the House opted to rely almost entirely on drastic cuts to balance the budget; some House members openly hoped that the Senate would provide less harsh solutions to the budget crisis.

To find alternatives to cutting, Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden tasked Duncan with a subcommittee on Fiscal Matters and charged it with finding $9 billion in extra revenue. They made it more than half-way there. Duncan released a list of 20 revenue-generating measures, totaling about $4.2 billion. All of those measures would need additional legislation to be implemented. Some of the items are simply accounting tricks—the single biggest provision would put off payments to public schools and save almost $2 billion. Another measure would tax small cigars at the same rate as regular cigarettes. Tax collections for the sales tax and the business tax would speed up, yielding a total of over a billion dollars.

In addition to the 20 items, Duncan also said he has an additional list of ideas that total about $600 million, although he didn’t release those ideas. The bill, SB 1811, will include all the measures, although the committee will vote on each one individually Wednesday.

But the measures would not do anything to address the state’s long term tax problems—namely that the current tax structure doesn’t yield enough to support the state’s costs. ”This is a one time fix,” Duncan told reporters after the committee hearing on his bill. “This does not solve our long term budget crisis—or problems,” he said, correcting his word choice.

Duncan told the committee that some ideas have already been filed as bills in either the House or the Senate, and other solutions have been used in the past to address severe budget shortfalls. Even with the new money, the Senate is still probably short of the funds it would take to fund education and health care at the levels senators would like. 

“This is a large step towards funding those priorities,” said Duncan. “I wish we had more revenue.”

Still, the senator remained optimistic about finding budget solutions so that schools and hospitals didn’t feel the budget crisis too harshly.. “At the end of the day, we’ll have to see how short we are,” he said. “The good news is it’s April.” It’s also only 40 days until the end of the legislative session and the Senate Finance Committee has yet to vote on a budget bill. 

 

Here’s the complete list with how much money each item will generate over the biennium:

  1. Foundation School Program payment deferral from August 2013 to September 2013, $1.8 million

  2. Sell 11 underused state properties, none of which have people living in them, $35 million

  3. Custom Brokers Stamp fee, $1 million

  4. Repeal Economic Development Tax Refund, $10 million

  5. Eliminate Hotel Permanent Resident Exemption used by airlines and oil companies, $10 million

  6. Speed up the state’s ability to absorb unclaimed property to help certify the budget, $316 million

  7. Reclassify Court of Criminal Appeals Training Fund, $5.3 million

  8. Process Server Certification Fees, $1.5 million

  9. Petroleum Delivery Fee Continuation, $59.2 million

  10. Motor Fuels Speed-up and the delay of motor fuels tax transfer to fund 6 and 2, $273 million

  11. Alcohol Tax Speed-up, $12.5 million

  12. Reduce Cigarette Tax Stamping Allowance, $47 million

  13. A fee on small cigars, which would tax small cigars like cigarettes (Right now, the tax on a pack of cigarettes is $1.44) $25.1 million

  14. Sales for Resale Fix, $200 million

  15. Eliminate CPA Audit Responsibilities of Office of Court Administration, $9 million

  16. Franchise Tax speed-up, which would require businesses to pay 25 percent of their franchise tax earlier than the due date, $880 million

  17. Sales Tax speed-up, $200 million

  18. Alcoholic Beverage Reporting, $25.8 million

  19. Tobacco Earnings for CPRIT debt service, $100 million

  20. ERS GBP Agency Enrollment Fee, $165 million

As Their Teachers Get Laid Off, Students Stage Protests

Students at Keller ISD and Katy ISD aren't taking teacher layoffs lying down. They're also not likely to be the only ones protesting.

Katy Independent School District may not be the district facing the biggest round of layoffs in the state, but the pink slips slips hit a nerve. Last week, as administrators began pulling 350 district employees out of classrooms to tell them they should start looking for new jobs, students got upset. And got active.

Hundreds of students (thousands if you believe YouTube interviews with some of the kids) protested and walked out of several high schools and middle schools Thursday. By Friday, according the KHOU television, one high school was on lockdown. No one’s been disciplined yet, but supposedly Monday, those still protesting will face consequences.

That might be enough to settle things down for a while, but Katy’s hardly the only district facing major layoffs—or the only one with angry students. Only two days earlier, 500 students staged a “sit-in” at Keller ISD as the district prepares to let go of 120 “probationary” teachers—those who haven’t yet worked two consecutive years in the district. Across the state, public school students will continue to learn just what the human cost of budget cuts really are—and we’ll probably see quite a few more students try to fight back.

The number of teacher layoffs could get pretty stunning. This is the first time in decades that schools districts don’t actually know the minimum amount they’ll get from the state. Districts must plan their own budgets for next year even as the Legislature is still deciding budget cuts, thanks to a $27 billion budget shortfall. The state House passed a budget that slashed a devastating $7.8 billion from public school funding, while the Senate seems determined to cut “only” $4 billion—the maximum sustainable cut according to the commissioner of education. Meanwhile, there’s potentially good news. Texas is likely to receive its $830 million in federal money to help save education jobs, and there’s always the unlikely possibility that the Legislature will consider options beyond just budget cuts—like closing tax loopholes to bring in more money or using more than just $3 billion from the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to help soften the budget blows. In the end, the final amount cut will likely be somewhere in between the House and Senate versions of the budget. 

But even knowing the total budget cut wouldn’t necessarily help districts. To make such drastic cuts, lawmakers must create a new system for distributing money to schools. Already, Texas has a complex school finance system that delivers different districts vastly unequal amounts per capita. Now the state must determine exactly how it will deliver the cuts. Which districts will take the biggest hits? The House has already heard two bills that offer different ways to distribute cuts. The Senate hears its first school finance bill Monday morning. (I’ll have a post on that later on Monday.) 

Districts won’t find out what they’ll get until the end of the legislative session—assuming that lawmakers can get it done by then. But districts can’t wait that long. They have to plan ahead for next year’s budget, and if they don’t layoff the teachers now, they’re obligated to keep the teachers on for next year.  Which means, if the state doesn’t come through, many of the districts won’t be able to make payroll in September. Still, most districts are hoping they’ll be able to hire these teachers back.

In the meantime, this is the time that most teachers will find out if they have a job next year. And while the budget crisis isn’t news, the layoffs across the state within a supposedly valued profession are stunning. Waco ISD is planning to cut around 180 employees, “most” of whom are teachers. The school board of Spring Branch ISD has decided to eliminate 350 positions. And over in Round Rock ISD, the school board voted to lay off 242 employees. In Houston, the biggest school district in the state, 950 teachers are on the chopping block. That’s just a sampling—and there’s more to come.

It’s easy to glaze over at the steady trickle of layoffs. Given the budget crisis, there’s not a lot of good news this legislative session, and inside the Capitol, people acclimate to the numbers, the jobs lost, the people hurt. It’s all too much, and it stops feeling real.

Not so, for the students at Keller and Katy. They didn’t take the bad news lying down—and as districts across the state get ready for the cuts, I’m going to bet we haven’t seen the last student protest over teacher layoffs. 

Adolescents have always known a thing or two about outrage. Right now, it’s a lesson we might all learn from.

Uresti Defends Sonogram Compromise

"In order to pass a bill you have to compromise as well," says the senator, "and so do I."

If—as just about all social conservatives are hoping—the Legislature passes a pre-abortion sonogram bill, it will likely be thanks to Sen. Carlos Uresti. The San Antonio Democrat paved the way for a deal between the House and Senate when he agreed to support a measure requiring the sonogram to occur at least 24 hours in advance of the abortion. Of course, there was a caveat: rural counties, which make up almost the entirety of Uresti’s district, get an exemption. After weeks of negotiating, the bill will very likely become law—and the waiting period will make it among the most stringent in the country.

When I talked to Uresti Wednesday, the senator said says he’s only being consistent. “The intent—at least my intent—is to give women an opportunity to have more information, to make more of an informed decision,” he told me. “Perhaps, by having the waiting period, whether it be 24 hours or two hours because of the logistics involved, maybe they’ll understand that there are some other options available to them—perhaps.” It wasn’t exactly a firm endorsement of the 24-hour provision.

That’s probably because while he now accepts a 24-hour waiting period (at least for the parts of the state he doesn’t represent), Uresti previously fought to get rid of the provision. Back when the Senate first debated sonogram legislation, Uresti successfully passed an amendment to whittle the lengthy waiting period down to two hours—statewide. He still would prefer a two-hour waiting period for the whole state “in an ideal world.”

“I think that would probably work best,” he said, pausing. “In order to pass a bill you have to compromise as well—and so do I.”

Still, Uresti says, he’s being consistent. He argues the rural exemption makes sense, because in such sparsely populated areas, women will already have to drive hours to have the procedure. “In essence it becomes almost a 24-hour waiting period,” he says of the logistics. “It seems like it serves the same purpose.

“At least for me it’s to be able to give them additional information,” he says, “and a little bit more time to think about the very difficult choice that they’re about to make—and I’m not trying to judge anyone.”

Uresti is still reviewing the bill currently headed to the floor. New components, including four pages of case law and legal precedent, have him slightly perturbed and he says he wants to make sure there are “no additional burdens” or “unintended consequences.” While he worked on the carve-out with the bill’s Senate sponsor, Houston Republican, Dan Patrick, he did not actually see the new version of the bill until it passed out of Senate State Affairs.

“I have not signed off on the bill yet and I think there’s an assumption in there that I have,” he says.

But when it comes to the 24-hour waiting period, he’s content with the bargain he’s struck. He’s also under no illusions about why the bill sponsors negotiated—rural communities make up for less than five percent of abortions statewide, he says. The 24-hour provision will still apply to 95 percent of abortions.

“In order to pass any bill you have to learn to compromise around here,” he says. “Nobody gets everything they want.”

The Band-Aid for the Business Tax Bullethole

The business franchise tax doesn't work. But while a Senate leader argues for reform, the House Ways and Means Committee considers making exemptions permanent.

“None of us were elected to raise taxes on anybody. But the margins tax is different.”

—Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan on the first day of the legislative session.

It was never a secret that the state’s business margins tax didn’t balance. It didn’t balance when the Legislature instituted it in 2006 to make up for a giant property tax cut. Back then, the apolitical Legislative Budget Board explained the math didn’t work—and the state would forever be short on cash. But the governor and the vast majority of the Legislature didn’t believe them, and decided to swap huge property tax cuts for a new tax on businesses. Five years later, that tax swap is heavily responsible for our unprecedented shortfall. It’s part of the reason that the House just passed a budget with drastic cuts to healthcare and education. The tax simply doesn’t produce enough money, and without that revenue, we don’t have enough to balance out the costs of this state. And until we fix the tax structure, the Comptroller’s office has said that Texas will be over $10 billion short every budget cycle.

Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, has been saying state must reform the business tax since the very first day of session. In a lengthy speech on the state’s budget crisis, Ogden implored his colleagues to consider reforming the business tax—even if it might look like they were raising taxes. Bryan, Texas, isn’t known for RINOs, and Ogden is no liberal. But the guy can do math and he thinks things like education are important to the future of the state. Without rewriting the business tax, the state will have to cut more and more from the budget each session—and we’re already scraping bone as it is.

But try as he might, Ogden is just talk. It’s not his fault; any major tax bill must come out of the House, not the Senate. And the House Republicans who make up a two-thirds of the body, have been unwilling to hear any bill that could possibly be construed as a tax increase. On the House Ways and Means Committee, the committee responsible fo tax bills, there’s been little talk of large-scale reform to the broken tax. Instead, they’re considering a permanent exemption for small businesses.

House Ways and Means spent much of their Monday meeting acknowledging that the tax doesn’t work. Not only does it raise less than the state needs, but it particularly burdens small businesses. It taxes a company’s gross intake, and companies can subtract either the cost of employees or products. In practice, that means a business can be in the red and still owe hefty taxes.

“This tax doesn’t care whether you make a profit or not—it’s gonna get ya,” says Will Newton, the Texas state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, when he testified in favor of a permanent exemption.

The original version of the tax exempted companies making less than $300,000, but lawmakers temporarily expanded that to include businesses making less than $1 million. According to some lawmakers, prior to the exemption, some small companies were spending as much on accounting services to pay the tax as it cost to pay the tax itself. Small companies want to make that broader exemption permanent, so they can avoid such dilemmas. If lawmakers don’t act, those small businesses will once again be paying the tax they hate.

“They’re going to feel like we raised taxes on them,” warned committee chair Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, who authored one of the bills to make the exemptions permanent. Such warnings are the reason that real reform is so tough—just say the words “tax increase” this session and a few skittish Republican moderates will hide under their beds, afraid of potential primary opponents who might lurk in the shadows.

It’s not that the exemption is unreasonable—it’s that the entire system isn’t working. And if the House doesn’t do something about it this session, we’ll be back to cut the budget even more next year. But many representatives are afraid to fix the broken system, particularly after so many Tea Party freshmen got elected on a platform of cutting spending and no new taxes. Many conservatives argue that the state must “live within its means”—a fine point, except that five years ago, we decided to drastically decrease those means.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fisher broached the topic of whole-sale reform at the Ways and Means meeting. Is there was any chance, he asked Newton, that the business community could “link hands and say, ‘Let’s not do anything until you can fix everything.’?”

It’s not that small businesses wouldn’t like to see the tax reformed entirely. “My members have said loud and clear that they abhor this tax,” said Newton. “There’s a lot of hard feelings in the small business community.” But Newton’s primary goal at the meeting was to advocate for an exemption—not a new taxing system.

Criticism for the measure was mainly directed at the potentional costs of the measure. While the exemption would cost around $75 million per year, Hilderbran says he’ll link it to a new source of revenue, so that there will be zero total cost to the state. Lobbyists in attendance tittered in speculation about just which tax would get replaced, but no one seemed expecting a new approach to businesses taxes.

Timidly, freshman Rep. Lanham Lyne, R-Wichita Falls, asked about the potential for a different type of tax. Instead of taxing on gross receipts, he asked, could the state consider taxing based on a business’ income?  ”I know this is blasphemy,” he mused, “and I’ll try not to say it real loud.”

But no one on the committee jumped. Instead, they continued to discuss the need to exempt small businesses from an unfair tax—a reasonable argument that barely touched on the biggest problems with the tax. In the House, the state’s leaky tax system is almost taboo among conservatives—spoken in whispers.

And while members may have trouble hearing such quiet sounds, it’s too bad they can’t hear the speeches in the chamber across the hall—where Steve Ogden is speaking quite audibly.

[Updated] Sonogram’s 24-Hr Provision to Exempt Rural Counties

The deal between House members and one Senate Democrat has paved the way for the controversial legislation

Update, April 12, 2011, 12:20 p.m.: The State Affairs Committee voted the new sonogram bill out of committee with a vote of six to two. The committee’s two Democrats, Sens. Rodney Ellis and Leticia Van de Putte, were the only two “no” votes. Expect to see the bill headed to the floor soon.

Last week, the Observer reported that lawmakers struck a deal to move stalled sonogram legislation forward. Monday, that deal came out into some bright sunlight.

At the Senate State Affairs Committee, Sen. Dan Patrick laid out House Bill 15—a bill very similar to the one the Senate passed weeks ago. Both the House and Senate bills required women seeking abortions to have a sonogram and hear a verbal description of the fetus, as well as the fetal heartbeat. But while both chambers passed a sonogram bill, one chamber was going to have to pick up the other’s version. The House refused to pass the Senate’s version and the Senate was dragging its feet in picking up the House bill. For weeks, things appeared at a standstill on the measure that Gov. Rick Perry had deemed an “emergency item.”

At issue was a provision in the House bill that required women to get the sonogram 24 hours in advance of the abortion. The House wouldn’t part with the measure because this was unacceptable to Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio. He argued that the 24-hour provision was too burdensome, particularly for women in his large rural district. And without Uresti, the bill didn’t have enough support in the Senate.

Well, now everything is hunky-dory—for supporters of the sonogram bill, that is. The Senate has picked up the House bill, and according to Patrick, it’s to Uresti’s satisfaction. It leaves in the 24-hour provision for everyone who lives in a county with more than 60,000 residents and less than 100 miles from an abortion provider. Read another way: Uresti got an exemption for the women of his district and a few others in rural parts of the state. The rest will have to abide by the stringent 24-hour provision.

“I’m trying to get to the policy rationale behind the less than 60,000 in a county,” Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, told Patrick at the State Affairs hearing. “How did you get to the 60,000? Just to get the votes? What’s this line?”

Patrick was blunt. “Uresti had a concern on the floor, for his counties,” the hardline social conservative explained. “His largest county is 56,000 people, so 60,000 addresses his counties and his issues.” Patrick went on to say that fewer than 5 percent of all abortions actually occur in such rural counties. In fact, while 200 of the state’s 254 counties have less than 60,000 residents, those 200 counties only account for 3 million people—less then 14 percent of the state’s population.

For everyone else seeking an abortion, the 24-hour provision will be one of the most significant parts of the bill. While Texas already requires a 24-hour waiting period, that period is pretty unstructured. This bill delays getting an abortion by requiring women to make an appointment for a sonogram and then wait.

But now that things are rolling again, the bill will very likely pass—thanks to the senator who got his own district exempted.


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