Session passes halfway point, UTA expansion measure gets heard, budgets are increased

Posted by Jon Weist, on Fri March 22 2013 at 04:28 PM

Last Monday marked the halfway point in the 83rd Legislative Session. At that point, exactly one substantive piece of state business has been addressed – funding programs in the budget that were left without enough money two years ago.

It could be argued that the 83rd session is just now starting, as that budget patch legislation – House Bill 10 if you’re keeping score—was really left over from the dreary decision-making that went on two year ago.

A couple of items of special interest to Arlington did move last week, including a measure that would allow UT Arlington to expand its boundaries and perhaps continue the winning streak the university and downtown Arlington have been on for the last few years.

State Representative Diane Patrick’s legislation moving UTA’s eastern boundary one block east of College Park Center was left pending in the House Higher Education Committee a couple of weeks ago, but there was no opposition and very little discussion. Patrick’s bill, HB 1753, is posted on the Chamber’s companion web site, www.voteforarlington.com. An identical version, sponsored by state Senator Kelly Hancock, is pending in the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The legislation does not contemplate bulldozers showing up September 1 if all relevant votes are favorable. Rather, it allows the university to purchase property bounded by Center Street, Mitchell Street, Mesquite Street and UTA Boulevard/Border Street as it becomes available. Condemnation will not be allowed in the property acquisition scheme.

Another higher education matter of intense interest but not really a matter for legislation bubbled to the last week during a meeting of the UT System Board of Regents.

The matter was ostensibly an audit report about a foundation related to the UT Austin School of Law, but the subtext was Board of Regents alleged interference in the functions of the flagship Austin campus and continuing hostility toward UT Austin President Bill Powers. All of the system’s regents are appointees of Governor Rick Perry.

Regents stirred up a ruckus during the 82nd Legislative Session with studies and information requests targeting research expenses and incurred costs at all system schools, though even then the focus was clearly on UT Austin. That controversy led to establishment of a special higher education governance oversight committee of the Legislature, and early this session Powers received votes of confidence and accolades from legislators in both houses.

Most of the controversy has died away, but the regents meeting and a rare, public disagreement brought charges of interference from some powerful legislators and put the UT System dirty laundry back on the front burner. A full discussion of the issue was published in the Texas Tribune last week and is posted on the Chamber’s web site at http://arlingtontx.com/images/uploads/Lawmakers,_Observers_React_to_Tense_UT_System_Meeting___The_Texas_Tribune.pdf

Another measure important to Arlington makes technical changes in the Major Events Trust Fund rules, allowing local governments to be reimbursed for public costs associated with a game in the NCAA Bowl Championship playoff, up to and including the BCS title game. The change is necessary because the trust fund only reimburses for events that are explicitly named in statute, such as the Super Bowl. Hancock’s version of this change has already passed the Senate, while Patrick’s House version has been voted out of the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee.

As almost always happens, the halfway point of the legislative session turns proceedings from a crawl to a spring. Committee meetings overlap, members rush back and forth between meetings without spending much time in either, testimony begins at 8 a.m., is suspended at 10, resumes at 2 and goes until the early evening.

But things are moving: The Senate voted 29-2 to approve a $195.5 billion budget on Wednesday, a budget that gives back about half of the public education funding cut two years ago. That budget, we’re told, also improves funding for several of UT Arlington’s initiatives, including inclusion in the state’s Competitive Knowledge Fund, a program targeted for research universities that, because of last sessions’ dire fiscal circumstances, UTA and UT El Paso were excluded from even though they qualify.

The very next day, the House Appropriations Committee took up the Senate Budget, substituted its own slightly lower-spending version and set up a budget debate that will end up in a conference committee some time in mid-to late-April.

This Tuesday will also see the first major education floor debate, when House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmy Don Aycock’s House Bill 5 comes up for a vote.

HB 5 revamps the testing regime – again – reducing the number of tests required for graduation, allowing school-district flexibility to substitute technical and career-oriented courses within the end-of-course testing scheme, changing the way district performance is measured and reported and ending the requirement that the end-of-course tests count for 15% of the graduation requirement. Senate Bill 3 by Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick is similar, though not identical.

In general, these changes increase local control and address concerns that the 4x4 scheme didn’t recognize the sizable need in the economy for students with technical skills who weren’t headed for college. The lock-step march toward college requirements is seen as one of many factors related to high dropout rates in many schools.

While the Chamber supports these changes in principle, the devil is in the details. In particular, there appears to be a battle brewing over whether the tests that are conducted are rigorous enough to demonstrate learning that employers can be assured give them a competent workforce upon graduation.

It may all come down to whether or not one course, Algebra II, should be included as a graduation requirement. Many school advocates argue the course isn’t relevant for a lot of skills and its difficulty will compel students to drop out rather than try pass it. On the other side, business groups and, significantly, Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, say that students are already passing graduation tests that aren’t preparing them for college or the workforce, an out come that abandoning Algebra II would perpetuate.
The 69-page version of HB 5 that was approved in the House committee is posted on www.voteforarlington.com.

In other items on the Chamber’s priority list:

Water

The major bills to create programs and administrative oversight addressing Texas’ efforts to provide water as the state grows took some procedural steps forward last week. House Bill 4 by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Allan Ritter was given the thumbs up by the committee, and the bills creating a funding mechanism were heard in the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees. Those bills, HB 11 and SB 22, allow one-time allocations from the Economic Stabilization Fund to set up a revolving fund for water programs.

One potential complication with that approach is how the state deals with issues related to the constitutional limit on spending. There are disagreements about how it’s calculated and about what spending applies to the limit, but a growing consensus is emerging that the best way for the Legislature to side-step the issue – at least as it relates to water funding – is to pose the allocation from the Rainy Day Fund as a constitutional amendment. That approach, which has been used to create bond programs for transportation in the last decade, would guarantee that the spending limit would not apply to spending from the fund.

Amending the constitution has the added virtue of skipping the governor’s office, though this spending seems to be okay with Governor Rick Perry. Putting an amendment on the ballot requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate, but so does allocating money from the Rainy Day Fund.

Education

One of Senator Patrick’s other jabs at the current system keeps coming up for a vote, then not getting voted on in Senate Education. Senate Bill 2, which we have previously mentioned, would lift the cap on charter schools, create a new board to oversee those schools and require school districts with underutilized buildings (a term undefined in legislation) to sell them to charter companies for $1.

Patrick has indicated a willingness to adjust some of the provisions, including raising the charter cap instead of abolishing it. The sale requirement is still in the bill as best we can tell right now.

Charters are public schools, and even public school supporters are in favor of creating new charters, but Patrick’s bill seems to be an extreme approach to the idea.

Patrick’s other major item, a voucher bill he doesn’t call a voucher, was filed at the deadline a two weeks ago and has yet to be referred. Senate Bill 23 creates a tax-credit program for businesses that voluntarily fund a “scholarship” allowing students to use the money at a private school.

Patrick says it doesn’t reduce funding for public schools, but it’s hard to sell that notion when the tax credit reduces revenue that goes into the foundation school program, which is what pays for state aid to public schools. Simply put, the measure reduces education funding but not education costs.

At first glance, bills that create this voucher-like program – there are versions in the Senate by Ken Paxton of McKinney and the House by Bill Callegari of Houston – do not appear to build in accountability requirements similar to those that must be met by public schools.

Transportation

Another attempt at making texting while driving a traffic offense is moving on both houses – the bill passed last year was vetoed by Governor Rick Perry but it continues to have significant, bi-partisan support.

The bills providing a reliable system for funding transportation in the years ahead have yet to be scheduled for hearings in the House Appropriations or Senate Finance committees.

One seemingly doomed but nevertheless appreciated bill is Senate Joint Resolution 47 by Kevin Eltife of Tyler, which would increase by constitutional amendment the state sales tax and dedicate the revenue from the increase to paying off previously issued transportation bonds.

Eltife has argued that going into debt is not a conservative notion – that raising the gas tax actually makes more sense – and has decided to call out his colleagues who rail against federal debt on an almost daily basis.

If somehow this makes it to a constitutional amendment vote this November, the path would be clear for a significant amount of gas-tax revenue collected at the current 20-year-old rate to go to transportation projects instead of paying off bonds.

Don’t hold your breath on this one.

Medicaid

Despite a growing chorus of Republicans who are cautiously suggesting that Texas should consider finding a way to accept the federal government’s offer of $100 billion over the next few years, Governor Perry and the most conservative elements in the party are still stuck at “no.”

The federal Affordable Care Act increases eligibility for Medicaid funding to adults up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level – Medicaid currently covers children, the elderly and the disabled – and pays for most of it for the next 10 years. For the next three years, federal funds cover 100 percent of the increased cost, a split that gradually settles to 90 percent federal and 10 percent state. This is, at its worst, still better than the current 60-40 split.

Many have noted that were it not for the politics of this issue – those who don’t want to give the Obama Administration a victory on anything (though Obama has already won the last election he will likely ever run in) – Texas would have followed the path of governors who are similarly anti-administration and accepted the money.

A few states have made deals to alter the program to provide more local control, and it’s on that basis that Texas lawmakers are trying to create room for a discussion. A respected, long-time state revenue estimator – Billy Hamilton – told lawmakers last week that the federal offer was unprecedented, and called it “the best deal you will ever see.”

Hamilton’s report analyzing the legislation is posted on the Chamber’s web site at http://arlingtontx.com/images/uploads/Smart_Affordable_and_Fair_FNL_FULL.pdf

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