Five Issues to Watch as the Show Unfolds at the 84th Legislature

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Vouchers and School Choice

If school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time,” then Dan Patrick is the next Frederick Douglass.

Our new lite guv is, of course, too humble to say so himself, but every time he compares school choice to, say, ending slavery or segregation, the subtext is clear. So count on hearing that old saw again and again from Patrick this year, not only because it makes such tidy work of Texas’ complex and abiding inequality, but because it lends a moral core to schemes long championed by free-marketeers who so often seem to lack one.

Patrick used the line repeatedly in his short-lived charge for school vouchers last session, when he introduced a “taxpayer savings grant” program to let companies fund private-school scholarships with money they were otherwise obliged to pay the state. The plan’s supporters insisted the comparison to vouchers was unfair.

Patrick has promised to fight for vouchers again this session, so expect to see another “taxpayer savings grant” or a school-voucher program for special-needs students that may slightly open a door the Legislature has, for decades, firmly held shut.

“We don’t know what type of voucher bills will be filed, but we hear they’re coming,” Raise Your Hand Texas CEO David Anthony told a crowd at the Capitol in December. He said proposals might include “anything that is humanly possible to pull on the heartstrings.” And indeed, days before the session began, Sen. Donna Campbell filed her “universal school choice” proposal, promising to improve poor children’s education while growing Texas’ economy.

Expect hearings and press conferences stacked with parents demanding a private-sector solution to their children’s lousy public schools. But a voucher system would direct public money to schools with no requirement to teach a state-approved curriculum or provide services for students with special needs or limited English, and with the freedom to turn students away as they see fit. A long-running voucher program in Milwaukee has shown that public school students don’t fare any better in private schools, but that may be beside the point. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher plan in Louisiana built a whole new industry rife with low-cost, low-quality schools to meet the new demand.

With a more conservative Senate and Patrick in charge, vouchers stand a better chance of passing than ever. Now, as in 2013, the fight will come down to whether the House, under Speaker Joe Straus and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), chair of the public education committee, can still hold the door shut tight.

Border and Immigration

This session, expect plenty of heated rhetoric from an influx of new tea party legislators who won elections by bashing immigrants and hollering about border security. Dan Patrick will likely lead the pack. In a campaign TV ad, he claimed ISIS fighters had threatened to cross the border and “kill Americans.” He’s also referred to undocumented crossers as an “invasion” and warned that immigrants carry “Third World diseases.”

Despite the border bombast, there hasn’t been an early outpouring of anti-immigrant bills like there was in 2011. (Remember when Tomball Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle camped out at the door of the chief clerk’s office so she could be the first one to file her immigration bills?) Among those earliest out of the gate in December: a bill by freshman Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) that requires the Texas comptroller to send a bill to the federal government for Texas’ border security expenses. No doubt, President Obama will cut that check just as soon as he gets the invoice.

But the slow start at the Lege doesn’t mean the anti-immigrant bills aren’t in the works.

“The general consensus among immigrant rights groups and advocates is that we’re going to see sanctuary city bills [allowing police to ask for immigration status] and legislation doing away with in-state tuition for undocumented students, among other things,” says Cristina Parker, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership.

Parker also worries that legislators will try to make statewide the approach taken by Farmers Branch, which attempted to bar immigrants from renting houses or paying for public utilities. The city’s ordinances were found unconstitutional. Parker says her organization and others are preparing for a fight, probably the toughest since 2011: “I think both chambers are going to be rough.”

Guns, Guns, Guns

This winter, in preparation for their brief biennial labors, at least a dozen Texas legislators surveyed our great state, and its diverse citizens’ struggles, ambitions, fears and dreams, and arrived at a unified conclusion about what Texans most urgently need: more guns.

Guns for everyone! Guns everywhere! At press time, Texas lawmakers had pre-filed 20 bills expanding or defending handgun rights. Not all those bills will pass, but if they did, the result would be downright Seussian. You could carry a gun when you turned 18; you could carry a gun where it could be seen. You could arm yourself while attending court or watching your kid give a book report. To a bar, a church, or the DMV, you could bear your arms both proudly and freely, and because Texas parents are calm and sane, you could pack heat at a high school football game.

And those are just the places that rhyme easily. Try working in “synagogue” and “correctional facility.”

The bills range in specificity. One by state Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) would allow guns basically everywhere they’re now banned, like hospitals, nursing homes, sporting events and amusement parks. Others are one-offs, such as the bills by state Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and Ken King (R-Canadian) permitting guns in school board meetings and to be carried by small-town medical responders, respectively. Some seem particularly pandering, such as the bill by state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) proposing a tax-free weekend for firearms and hunting accessories. And state Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) wins “Most Creative” for a bill protecting the right of grade-school children to play with pretend guns, specifically allowing “brandishing a partially consumed pastry … to simulate a firearm.” That’s referencing an incident in Maryland where a second-grader was suspended after chewing his Pop-Tart into a gun shape.

But those are all side dishes and dessert. The main course for gun-hungry legislators is open carry. It’s been proposed before, but there’s a bigger push this year; four state representatives have already filed matching open-carry bills. Yet even they won’t win the big Second Amendment prize. So far, that’s going to state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who proposed what’s called “constitutional carry,” eliminating the need for a license to carry a gun.

That may sound radical, but Alice Tripp, a lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association, suggests the most dramatic proposals are still to come. “We support all pro-gun legislation,” she says. “But there’s many, many bills that are not pre-filed. Those will be aggressively supported.”

Abortion

After the drama of the summer of 2013, the idea that the Legislature might have further to go in restricting access to abortion could strike some as absurd. House Bill 2, the legislation that emerged from the special sessions that year, tested the limits of what was allowed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s past decisions, and it will be a while before the legal status of the law is ultimately resolved.

But while that battle continues in the background, there are peripheral issues that some pro-lifers are eager to address. The most significant point of contention may be over rules governing a legal procedure known as a “judicial bypass,” in which minors whose parents won’t give consent for an abortion can seek it through a judge. One prominent legal aid group in the state, Jane’s Due Process, specializes in helping young women secure this permission.

Minors who seek a judicial bypass often come from abusive homes or are at risk of abuse if they seek an abortion. But many pro-life activists consider judicial bypass a “loophole” that negates a parent’s say in what they see as a moral issue, and they’d like to limit it. If that effort gains traction, activists wouldn’t have to look far for champions—this year’s new crop of legislators are set to make the Texas Capitol more stalwartly pro-life than ever before. State Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) compared legalized abortion to the Holocaust at great length in his swearing-in speech.

And there’s new state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton), a crusading pro-life activist who keeps rubber fetuses in her SUV and pictures of young dead mothers in her wallet, both with the aim of explaining the human cost of abortion. She blames her two abortions as a youth on her history of drug and alcohol abuse, and she’s set to be one of the most colorful freshman reps next session. At the top of her agenda is overhauling judicial bypass.

The Budget

In bad times, the state budget is brutal; in good times it is merely austere. That is the basic dynamic we’ve come to expect from an increasingly stingy Legislature. These are good times, relatively speaking. The Texas economy is growing at a steady clip; unemployment is just north of 5 percent; the oil boom continues (although a slide in oil prices has slowed things a bit); and state revenues have exceeded projections. Some budget analysts and lawmakers are eager to point to a “surplus” of as much as $10 billion for the biennium that ends on Aug. 31. (We won’t know for sure until January, when the comptroller provides an official revenue estimate and sets limits on how much the Legislature can appropriate for 2015-2016.)

Ten billion dollars sounds like a lot, but it will go quickly. Let us count the ways: The state begins every two-year fiscal cycle with an $8 billion structural deficit—a fancy way of saying unpaid bills, the result of a 2006 Rick Perry-engineered tax swap that never penciled out. Then there’s the hole from 2011’s frenzy of cuts. The Lege has only restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion it sliced from public schools in 2011. That’s not even accounting for growing enrollment and increasing costs. (Eva DeLuna Castro, the budget guru for the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities, estimates that another $20 billion per biennium is needed to have “schools everyone can be really proud of.”) Looking at the state’s core services—largely education and health and human services—lawmakers need to provide an additional $7 billion just to maintain the status quo. The Texas Department of Transportation says it needs another $5 billion merely to keep pace with the state’s booming population. If you’re following along at home, that big “surplus” evaporates pretty quickly.

“The economy is growing in a way that is not reached by our state tax system,” said DeLuna Castro. “That’s what this all boils down to.”

Yet many Republicans campaigned on, and are clamoring for, more tax cuts. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in particular, has promised some sort of property tax relief “for all Texans.” DeLuna Castro said for it to be meaningful, i.e., for people to really notice it, would require $10 billion. Clearly, you cannot meet the basic needs of the state—much less reverse more than a decade of disinvestment—and pass a big tax cut. Still, they may try. 

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Published at 2:20 pm CST
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