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Saturday’s House Meltdown: Points of Order and Points of No Return

When Democrats continued to obstruct bills with points of order, the Republican supermajority unleashed its full power—and now there's no turning back.

Usually, you have to look back to find the pivotal moments—to find the times “when everything changed.” But sitting in the Texas House in early May, on the body’s first working-Saturday, it was obvious to everyone that we were watching a key moment of the legislative session.

“Craig Eiland just threw his rulebook!” the reporter next to me exclaimed. I turned to see the always polite, always proper Democrat from Galveston,the guy stands when ladies leave a table, looking ready for a fight. I’m not sure where his rulebook landed.

Over four hours of fight over the rules, the Republican supermajority had had enough of the Democrats’ obstructionism. Since the beginning of the session, Democrats have used technical points of order to stall and disrupt proceeding on major bills. On that first Saturday, members arrived to discover yet another point of order—this one on major education legislation from the night before—had been sustained. Meanwhile with only 113 of the body’s 150 members present, the 20 Democrats present realized they had some actual power. If they walked out, there would be too few members to continue under the rules.

And that was the boiling point. Suddenly there were calls to lock the doors and keep the Democrats from leaving. That motion got withdrawn, only to be replaced by motions to suspend rules on bills—which would effectively remove points of order from the Democrats’ meager arsenal of legislative weapons. Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who was elected with Democratic support to usher in a less partisan era, refused to recognize chief Democratic bombthrower, Trey Martinez-Fischer. Then he chose to recognize Republican Rep. Brandon Creighton for a motion to “move the previous question” on a controversial tort-reform bill—legislative-speak for an immediate vote.

That’s when Eiland took to the microphone. “you’re about to make a bad day that we’ve had here much worse,” he pleaded with his colleagues. “People are testy, people are tired but that does not justify breaking the rules , wiping away the rules.” But wipe away they did. The controversial bill passed with no amendments and no debate.

It was the end of an era.

The Republicans had decided to unleash their full strength. Even if they choose not to use it again this session, the GOP has shown their weaponry—and how they can respond if pushed. Of course, the Democrats were undoubtedly obstructing the process—almost all their points of order were technical and somewhat trivial. With more than two-thirds of the seats in the House, the Republicans are well within their rights to suspend the rules. Likewise, Speaker Straus can choose not to recognize a member. 

But that doesn’t make any of it less of a break with traditions and trusts in the body. The rules, however, have always been central to how the House runs. At the beginning of the session, the House as a whole debates and decides how they’ll operate. The Republicans voted for those rules at the beginning of the session. Threatening to suspend the rules and then choosing to pass bills without debate—that’s more than just a violation of trust. It comes close to violating some democratic principals.

Furthermore, Texas has always been a state that makes it hard to pass laws. Bills run a gauntlet and most of them die in the process—from getting a committee hearing to getting the votes to pass out of the committee, from getting onto the legislative calendar to winning a majority vote on the House floor, not once but twice. While the minority party members are unlikely to pass major bills, they still have the power to kill bills. That’s probably because this state government was built to minimize lawmaking—after all, the Legislature only meets for 140 days every two years. 

Across the hall in the Senate, Republicans had made a similar decision, earlier in the week, when passing their version of the budget. After days of negotiations, the Republicans got tired of trying to compromise with Democrats. They chose to abandon the tradition of requiring two-thirds support on bills, and thanks to a caveat their rules, passed the contentious budget with only GOP votes.

Ironically the Republicans, the party of small government, has drastically expanded their power to create more laws. House Democrats have so few members this session that they could never expect to play a major role in creating legislation. Their only power was in stopping bills—and even that was based on finding technical problems. Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats clung to the two-thirds rule, which made them an integral part of the process.

Now the Republicans in both chambers have effectively said the Democrats only have whatever power they want to give them—and even that little power can be taken away. Republicans may not actually act on those threats again. Perhaps the rest of the session won’t see another moment like this.

But Democrats have been told decisively that they’re going to get steamrolled. Even if they had major points of order, Straus may simply not recognize points of order or rules violations. We could see the House start passing bills right and left, by threatening to use such maneuvers. Or we could see the Democrats turn desperate, looking for any way to blow up the session. None of it’s likely to be pretty.

But there’s no going back now.

The Democrats’ Last Chance to Stop the Budget [Updated]

Both the House and Senate budgets make major cuts to public ed. But those cuts are only possible if they pass new school finance legislation.

Updated May 5, 4:25 p.m. 

Don’t let the headlines fool you. While the Senate and House have both passed versions of the budget, the debate is far from over.

That’s because both budgets rely on major cuts to public education, and those cuts are contingent on new bills getting passed. If a school finance bill doesn’t pass, the budgets don’t balance.

You see, under current law, schools are entitled to a certain amount per student. Districts raise what they can with property taxes, and the state must pay for the rest. (For more on our troubled school finance system, read my March cover story.) The state can’t make good on those obligations, and for the first time in 60 years, we won’t automatically fund public schools.

When budget writers opted to cut from public schools in order to balance the budget, they knew that they would need extra legislation to change the school finance system. Otherwise, we would still owe billions to the schools, and big debts are hardly politically palatable. The House and Senate each have bills that cut the necessary amounts to schools in order to make their budgets’ respective cuts to school districts—$4 billion in the Senate and a whopping $8 billion in the House. Those bills are integral to the budgets that each chamber approved.

But as we knew back in February, these school finance bills will be hard to pass. In the House, Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg’s bill isn’t even on the calendar yet. His bill tries to shield the poorest districts from cuts by putting all districts on a formula system. But that means that those school districts that have been living high on the hog will get slashed by huge percentages. It’s certainly not going to be an easy-pass in the House.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Education Chair Florence Shapiro’s bill hasn’t yet had the votes to come to the floor, and Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill. Of course, with the fight over the Senate budget, school finance bill wasn’t the top thing on people’s minds. I asked Democratic Sens. Royce West and Judith Zaffirini whether they’d discussed their options, and both said no.

But when I asked Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, she said she was considering the implications of blocking the school finance bill. “I’m encouraging my colleagues to as well,” she said.

Still Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill, and by extension cast a harsh political blow to the budget process. Without update school finance legislation, the state would still owe billions. While the state would hand out the available money, we’d still owe the rest to districts. Conservatives have frequently said the bill pays for every school kid, leaving out that it does so by paying less for each school kid. Without the new legislation, that argument won’t even technically hold up. Big government debt isn’t traditionally popular with fiscal conservatives. By blocking the school finance bill, Democrats could effectively make the education portion of the budget a poison pill.

Of course, that’s dependent on whether or not the Senate will observe the traditional two-thirds rule. Wednesday, the Senate found a way to pass the budget without a single Democratic vote. Republican senators used a caveat in the rules that meant they did not need the two-thirds support that’s normally required to debate a bill on the floor.

Afterwards, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters that the two-thirds tradition wasn’t dead—that the budget situation was a rare exception. If Democratic senators try to block school finance legislation, we’ll see just how resuscitated the two-thirds rule really is.

Update: Just to be clear: If a school finance bill doesn’t pass, it doesn’t mean the budget is automatically void. There are various, complex provisions in law to deal with a shortage in school funding. But the budget’s columns won’t balance—by $8 billion, according to the House budget. No one is quite sure what would happen if the school-finance bill doesn’t pass, and the budget comes up $8 billion short. What we can say is that if the school finance bill fails, it will seriously disrupt the budget process and could potentially sink House Bill 1.

 

 

A Gamble, a Threat and a Tradition: Take-Aways from Tuesday’s Senate Budget Fight

A three hour debate on the budget highlights the tense relation between the House and Senate, the risky new method of financing and the possible loss of the two-thirds rule.

After three dramatic hours of debate, Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden still did not have enough votes to bring the Senate budget up for debate Tuesday night. Senate Democrats stood unified against the measure—which left the chamber two votes shy of the 21 votes needed. Ogden has been scrounging for votes all week to pass the document, which is significantly more moderate than the House version. It includes significant cuts all around, but it also spends $11 billion more than the House budget on state services like schools and health care. At points last week, Ogden lacked support from members of both parties. Democrats argued the budget should spend more, while some Republicans objected to the bill’s use of $3 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for the 2012-2013 biennium.

With only a few weeks until the end of the legislative session, Ogden made compromises to get the votes he desperately needed. The partisan split turned out to be one of the many unprecedented moments of the debate. First, he agreed to remove the Rainy Day money and opt for a riskier method of financing the bill (see below). He also made it clear that the Republicans have an opportunity to pass the budget even if they don’t have the two-thirds support normally required in the Senate. A caveat in the chamber rule allows simple majority votes on House bills during “House Bill Days.” This is hardly normal protocol, but no matter. Since the budget is technically a House bill—and since Wednesday is one of these House Bill Days—the budget debate will undoubtedly continue into Wednesday and likely through the end of the week. In the meantime, here are three key take-aways from the Senate’s debate.

The Tradition: Two-Thirds Rule At Risk 

As each Democrat rose to speak against the budget Tuesday night, almost everyone began by thanking Ogden. They emphasized how transparent and inclusive the budget process had been. Finally Ogden stopped one member. “I appreciate all this appreciation,” he said, “but what I really need is a couple of votes.” The Senate has always been the body of collegiality—and the two-thirds rule has helped ensure that bills get bipartisan support. But the body is also charged with passing a budget every legislative session, and the Republican leadership seems dead-set on getting something passed on the chamber floor. From the beginning of Tuesday’s debate, the threat to the Democrats was clear.

Once they had their “House Bill” loophole, Senate Republicans no longer needed the Democratic votes. But Ogden argued that he still desperately wanted to get two-thirds support and not diminish the rule. It amounted to an odd and latent threat: Don’t use your power or we’ll take it away from you.

Senators who did not vote to suspend the rules and debate the budget were “threatening” the tradition, Ogden said. “If we cannot suspend [the rules] with 21 votes, I am worried about the traditions of this Senate,” Ogden said. “That is why I have worked so hard and done everything I can possibly think of to get to 21 votes.”

Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, the longest-serving member of the Senate, spoke up. “You don’t really mean that those voting ‘no’ would be responsible for any demise of the two-thirds rule?” he asked incredulously. “You know that’s wrong.” Whitmire argued that the decision had in some ways already been made; if Republicans didn’t have their loophole, they would be negotiating with Democrats in back rooms rather than discussing the measure on the floor.

“The people in the state of Texas don’t give a diddle about the two-thirds rule,” Ogden shot back, arguing almost no Democrats were ever firmly committed to supporting the budget. 

The two-thirds rule has already weathered some storms. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has frequently spoken against it, pushing for a less restrictive three-fifths rule. Last session and this time, the GOP senators made an exception for voter identification legislation, requiring that the controversial bill only need a majority vote. But with just over a third of the seats, Democrats have still been able to use the rule as a key bargaining chip.

After debate, both Ogden and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said they were still hoping to get two-thirds support tomorrow and eager to compromise with Democrats. But only up to a point. “I will get a budget passed out of here,” Dewhurst promised. 

And without the need for some bipartisan support, this is the end of an era.

 

The Gamble: The Financing of the Senate Budget

It turns out that the Legislature might rely on gambling to balance the budget this session after all. As part of a bid to win support from his Republican colleagues in the Senate, Ogden opted not to use $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund.

Instead, he unveiled a complex scheme to replace that $3 billion by essentially betting that the state economy will dramatically improve over the next two years. It’s the type of odds the house in Vegas—or maybe an ultra-conservative House in Texas—might like.

It’s also an interesting exercise in math that Ogden only partially explained Tuesday.  About $1.25 billion would come from delaying Medicaid payments until the next biennium.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) asked Ogden whether that would simply mean tapping the Rainy Day Fund to pay those bills when they come due two years from now.

“How do you pay for that?,” replied Ogden. “I don’t know but I think the economy is going to grow and revenues are going to be much higher than the Comptroller estimates. We could be running a surplus two years from now.”

And what if the best-laid plans of budget-writers don’t come true? Ogden’s proposal includes a 1.2 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies if revenues don’t improve. That works out to about $690 million.

If you’re good at math, you’ve already figured out that the numbers don’t add up to $3 billion. And that’s where things get interesting. At least twice today, Ogden hinted at tapping the Rainy Day Fund when the so-called “supplemental” spending bill for the current 2010-2011 budget comes up for debate. Recall that the state of Texas also has a budget deficit for this biennium (2010-2011) that must be dealt with as well. The House patched the hole by using $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and $1 billion in cuts. That’s packaged up in House Bill 4, which the Senate has yet to vote on.

“I think it’s more than appropriate for us to debate how much of the Rainy Day Fund, if any, to fund House Bill 4,” Ogden mysteriously told one of his colleagues today.

Later, Ogden refused to elaborate to the press. Who wants to bet that more high budgetary shenanigans will unfold tomorrow?


The Threat: Role of the House in the Senate Budget Debate

 There’s more than enough blame to go around for the Senate’s near meltdown over the budget the past week. But the people perhaps most responsible for the impasse reside across the Capitol rotunda—in the Texas House.

The House, you’ll remember, passed an austere budget last month that sliced $23 billion from state spending. The reductions to public education and health and human services were particularly deep. If the House budget were implemented, many policy experts predict closures of schools and nursing homes.

For Senate Democrats—and Senate Republicans for that matter—the House version of the budget represents a shocking, almost cruel level of spending that must be avoided at all cost.

During Tuesday’s budget debate, Democrats Royce West and John Whitmire said publicly what many insiders had speculated: Senate Democrats don’t hate the Senate’s version of the budget. Rather they fear what will happen when a conference committee melds the Senate’s budget with the dreaded House version.

The Senate budget looks rather moderate. It relies heavily on cuts, but it spends $11 billion more than the House. The Senate version funds key areas such as public education, Medicaid, Child Protective Services and mental health at much higher levels.

The problem for the Democrats was they had only one weapon at their disposal—the two-thirds rule. And they had one chance to block the budget and force a special session this summer. Once the budget comes back from conference committee, the Senate can approve it with straight majority vote—an outcome the 12 Democrats in the Senate couldn’t impact.

If the Senate budget were standing on its own merits, some Democrats might have supported it. Whitmire and West both indicated on the floor today that Democrats had asked the leadership—Dewhurst and Ogden—for another two-thirds vote after the budget returns from conference committee. That request was turned down.

So Democrats chose to block the budget while they still could. Ogden needed just two Democratic votes to pass the budget. He could scrounge up only one.

Had the House version been less radical, it’s likely Senate Democrats would have been more accommodating.

The budget debate in the Senate has been a mess. But the House is largely to blame.

 


David Dewhurst: The Lite Guv Who Spooked Us

In his remarks on the killing of Osama bin Laden, David Dewhurst reminds the presscorps he's not your average politician.

Even in a building of, ahem, unusual individuals, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stands out. For one thing, he’s about a foot taller than everyone else. Then there’s his odd way of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. There’s his love for air conditioning—a trip to the Senate can feel like a trip to the Arctic Circle. He’s also supposedly going to run for U.S. Senate, although he hasn’t announced his candidacy. And of course there’s his history in the Central Intelligence Agency.

Since he was the only state lawmaker I know of to hold a press conference on Osama bin Laden’s death, the link between the news and his history with the Agency was hardly subtle. But it sure was interesting. 

His own remarks were rather predictable. “We know we have very dangerous people out in the world who hate Americans,” he explained. “And more than they hate Americans, they hate freedom. They hate the fact that we have a free society and we believe in religious tolerance. So they’re making war on us.” 

He even warned other terrorists that “if you harm Americans, America will not sleep. We will track you down. And we’ll take as long as it takes until we get ya.”

But after his three minutes of remarks, the reporters in the room got curious. What was his own view of the event in light of his work history? What exactly did he do?

“What I can tell you,” he began, “is when I was in college … a very very smart and very knowledgable lawyer happened to be the dad of my college roommate. He had been in the CIA for years.”

He couldn’t tell us much beyond that. He was a case officer abroad. He “ran agencies.” (For more on Dewhurst’s CIA history, check out our October profile.)

He was drawn, he said, to “the high professionalism, the dedication, the intelligence level of men and women who were willing to make a career out of being in the shadows, not being seen, to protect Americans.”

But while he’d resigned 35 years ago, Dewhurst wanted to make sure the reporters understood he was very much “in the loop.” He gave us a brief history of US-Pakistan relations since 9/11. In the ’90s, he said, he’d been on “very highly classified presidential committee” as a presidential appointee. He still had friends in Washington, he told us, who knew of over 12 foiled terrorist plots on American soil. He was planning to call for more details about the bin Laden mission.

“Since I heard the news, I just thought of the millions of human hours and the dedication of thousands of hours of our intelligence professionals,” he said. 

“I can’t go into details,” he said ominously, “but the capabilities that the United States has developed over the years is nothing short of breath-taking.” 

The guy sure made himself seem exciting and mysterious. What an operative! Then he went back to the Senate, to wield the gavel in a chamber where members can’t find the trust or will to pass a budget.  

Are Democrats Hoping for a Special Session?

If lawmakers fail to pass a budget this session, they'll have to meet again this summer to finish the task. That may be the outcome some Democrats are hoping for.

For most of this legislative session, there’s been an ongoing joke—”Don’t make plans for July.”

Facing an unprecedented budget shortfall and redistricting, no one had a whole lot of confidence that lawmakers would finish their business during the 140 days of regular session. But few were actively hoping for a special session—when the governor calls back the Legislature to either pass a bill or complete unfinished work from the session.

But it appears that at least some House Democrats are now crossing their fingers that a special session might yield the kind of document they’re hoping for—a budget without drastic cuts to state services.

Currently chief budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, is unable to muster the two-thirds support necessary to debate their version of the budget. While there are significant cuts to education and health care, the Senate version spends over $10 billion more than the House to soften the cuts. It goes too far for some Republicans, while not going far enough for some Democrats.

Reps. Mike Villarreal, Sylvester Turner, Craig Eiland and Ruth McClendon-Jones, all of whom are on the House Appropriations Committee, gathered Thursday to publicly support the Senate’s delays in passing a budget, arguing the Senate version still did not go far enough. They particularly pointed to those Republican House members who supported the House’s bare-bones budget with a confidence that the Senate would return a less drastic document.

When a reporter asked if the general public grasped the magnitude of the cuts, Villarreal called the lack of general awareness about the cuts “one argument for continuing this public conversation into the summer.”

Later, I asked Villarreal and Turner if they had any concerns about going into a special session.

“How does it get worse?” Turner asked.

“It can only get better,” Villarreal said. More people would pay attention, he argued, and “when more eyes are on us, we make better decision.”

When I asked House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, what that extra attention might mean, he shook his head at me.

“A lot of people that have free time in the summer will be here that may not have free time today,” he said vaguely.

“Public employees?” I asked. “Teachers?”

“Texans!” he said with a smile.

I’ll translate. If we go through the summer, we’ll likely see a lot more people at the Capitol. Most of them won’t be happy. Thousands of teachers and public employees are already getting pink slips. I’d expect to see hundreds of them at the Capitol each day of a summer session—when they won’t have a job to go to—demanding fewer cuts. Meanwhile, outside hard-right groups like Empower Texans, which already wield a fair amount of clout in the Capitol, can also expend more energy watching budget proceedings and pushing for less spending. It won’t be easy to find common ground. And the governor will have to get directly involved for the first time—after all, he’ll be the one to call them back.

That may be the goal for Democrats. Special sessions draw attention to the leadership. Democrats have spent all session demanding that Republicans “own” the budget—and take responsibility for the drastic cuts. But for the most part, Gov. Rick Perry has been able to lay low this session. A special session would put the spotlight on him—and the state’s budget woes. With all the speculation that Perry will run for president or vice president, national media may well start paying more attention to Texas’ legislative struggle. He’ll have a harder time distancing himself from the massive layoffs and cuts to state services. 

“He just keeps taking pictures with the A&M basketball team while they’re laying off professors,” exclaimed Turner. “The governor has to be a part of this discussion.”

Still it’s not clear how lawmakers will hammer out a compromise either in this session or a special one. In a special session, Perry would certainly be part of the picture. But how that picture will come to include a passed and signed budget is anyone’s guess.

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.

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