Medicaid Fix Moves Forward, So Does Water

Posted by Jon Weist, on Sat February 23 2013 at 02:12 AM

Education issues in Austin picked up momentum last week, the first step toward paying this year’s Medicaid bill sailed through the Texas House and a public conversation during a transportation forum revealed wide differences—and signaled a difficult path forward – in how to fix the state’s infrastructure revenue problems.

Sailing along smoothly, at this point anyway, are discussions about providing a program and funding mechanism for water supply moving forward. While the proposals to pay for a revolving fund to subsidize or loan money on water projects have not yet been heard, bills to set up programs received a lot of attention in House and Senate committee last week.

On Thursday, House members voted 148-0 to send a supplemental budget bill – a $5.1 billion measure to pay for Medicaid for the balance of the budget year and to fix some delayed payments in the Foundation School Program – to the Senate for consideration. The vote came after a relatively brief 30-minute floor discussion, and, significantly, after a potentially divisive amendment from San Antonio Democrat Trey Martinez-Fischer addressing public education funding was withdrawn.

Democrats had hoped to use the first substantive budget issue this session to make their pitch for restoring some of last year’s $5.4 billion in education cuts, even though state leaders have indicated major education spending reforms are on hold until the Texas Supreme Court rules on lawsuits challenging the state’s finance system. The state lost round one in that debate last month.

Martinez-Fischer said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts promised him that he will get his day to make a substantive case for school finance reform later in the session.

Even with that promise, it’s doubtful there will be much of substance addressing the structure of state assistance to school districts until the court cases are wrapped up, which could be next year.

On the other major issues addressed in the Chamber’s legislative agenda (which can be viewed at http://arlingtontx.com/images/uploads/83rd_Session_Legislative_Agenda_updated.pdf):

Education

Major public school discussions began in earnest this week, and those subjects—testing, how much kids are learning, how prepared they are for the workforce and how schools are rated – will consume major chunks of legislative time.

On Tuesday, House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmy Don Aycock’s 58-page package, House Bill 5, redefining testing, graduation requirements and district accountability drew 103 witnesses for its first committee hearing, and Aycock’s wasn’t the only bill on the subject set for the hearing, which lasted more than six hours.

After a year of confusion, frustration, lack of direction from the state, low-test scores and parental concern, legislators have returned to Austin determined to change the testing system. Aycock’s bill would reduce the number of required tests, make counting the state’s tests in graduation requirements optional, provide flexibility in some subjects for courses more geared to career interests rather than college entrance and change the way school performance is calculated and reported. Several other bills, including some filed by representatives Diane Patrick and Matt Krause who represent portions of Arlington, would do pieces of the same thing.

However, the details of how all that would work, and whether outcomes would improve – produce graduates ready for college and the workforce – is an open question. Virtually all of the testimony on HB 5 came from educators and parents, and while there were variations on what they wanted, what they all wanted was something different from what they have now.

There was one significant, hard-to-ignore voice of dissent. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said he understood the objections to complexity, but he was not satisfied that reducing the number of tests or substituting different coursework for some classes would produce the workforce Texas employers need. Hammond said many high-school tests that qualify students for graduation are at an 8th-grade level.

“We’re concerned that we’re not graduating enough kids who are career or college ready,” he said. “With regard to performance in the past, it has not been there. We have not gotten the results that we need and deserve for the investment.”

One significant debate in the education community has been whether high schools are only testing to determine if students are ready for college, and not for jobs that may require some post-high schoolwork but not a two-year or four-year degree. Hammond said the concern between career and college ready was overblown.

“There might not be as much difference as people think,” he said.

In another venue, a major bill expanding charter school licenses was given its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee. Committee chairman and Senate Bill 2 author Dan Patrick of Houston proposed lifting the cap on charters – which are public schools – and a host of other things, including a new state authority to deal with charter schools. It’s unusual for a Republican to ever propose expanding state bureaucracy, especially a low-tax, low-spending, tea-party leaning Republican such as Patrick.

The eye-catching proposal in his bill is the one that requires school districts to turn over “underutilized” facilities to charter companies, for $1. The bill does not contemplate a way for the district to get that facility back, and requires the new agency Patrick would establish to determine what underutilized means.

No action was taken after Thursday’s hearing. The charter legislation, Senate Bill 2, is posted on the Chamber’s public policy web site at http://www.arlingtontx.com/publicpolicy or by clicking here.

Transportation

Legislation this session aimed at increasing money for building and maintaining Texas roads has not yet been given a hearings While there is a heightened awareness that providing money for transportation infrastructure in Texas has been neglected for most of the last decade, there is precious little agreement on how to move forward.

Bills by the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees that would migrate revenue from vehicle sales taxes to the transportation fund over a period of years – it currently goes to the general fund, paying for education and health care, among other things – have been referred to the financing and appropriations committees, not the transportation committees.

In concept, the sales tax swap makes great sense. It would not require a new tax or fee, and with revenue projections much improved, the substantial hole that the transfer would leave in the general fund could be filled by the natural growth the state has experienced in the last couple of years.

But at least one person with a lot to say about it, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, has already indicated the measure isn’t going anywhere, and no other solution appears likely to garner enough support to pass both chambers.

Nowhere was that notion more in evident than at the 8th annual Texas Transportation Forum last Monday. A panel on state affairs moderated by Dallas Morning News editorial writer Rodger Jones demonstrated the divide in thought between the House and Senate, or at least some senators and representatives, on transportation funding.

While House Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Phillips tried not to directly address pointed questions about raising the state’s 20-cents per gallon gas tax – last raised in 1990 – senators Kevin Eltife of Tyler and Juan Hinojosa of McAllen said without new revenue, the problems don’t get solved,

Eltife, a Republican from Tyler who stays away from the limelight but is one of the body’s more studious members, called for a 10-cent increase in the motor fuels tax, future indexing the tax to inflation and for an end to issuing debt to pay for road projects. He noted that the debt will cost 2-3 times what it produces over the life of the bonds, and revenue that could go to new projects is used to retire that debt.

Jones challenged Eltife on how any Republican could suggest raising any tax. Eltife’s response showed a concern for solving problems instead of preserving his political career,

“I was fine before I got this job,” he said. “If they kick me out of office, I’ll be fine.”

The roaring applause that followed the comment showed that some people appreciate statesmanship, maybe even leadership, over the political posturing we have seen so much of lately.

Economic Development

One low-key but significant measure moved forward Wednesday, when the Senate Economic Development Committee unanimously approved Senator Kelly Hancock’s bill to change the definition of the BCS Bowl series so that a game in the playoff series – which is what the BCS will evolve to – would qualify for funding from the state’s Major Events Trust Fund.

The fund reimburses local jurisdictions for public costs – security, traffic control – associated with event such as the Super Bowl or the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. Only events specifically identified in the legislation qualify for reimbursement. The payment comes from estimated sales tax generated from the event and is not a state appropriation.

A version of the same bill, carried by Diane Patrick, will be heard soon in the House Economic and Small Business Development committee.

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