Education, water items move in state House

Posted by Jon Weist, on Thu March 28 2013 at 09:48 PM

Even with five work days crammed into three, state legislators had their most significant week of the 83rd session in the week before Easter. 

This update will be short due to the holiday.

While everyone was trying to get out of town – senators started leaving Wednesday afternoon – House members tackled two major, high-priority issues and after hours of floor debate, passed significant adjustments to public school testing regulations and set up programs to aid in development of water resources.

Both bills passed with almost unanimous support, though those votes came after multiple attempts to significantly alter their direction. In both cases, the bill authors and their top lieutenants held firm, accepting few amendments and handily defeating everything else.

House Bill 5, the major legislation overhauling testing and graduation requirements, school district performance assessments and local flexibility in designing some tests, took nine hours to pass on Tuesday. House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmy Don Aycock accepted few of the 165 amendments, many aimed at toughening the standards to somewhere between Aycock’s proposal – which was supported by most school districts, parent and teacher organizations – and the current, almost universally despised law.

Aycock pushed back on critics from business organizations who said his bill, which made passing a math course such as Algebra II optional in many cases, by saying that such classes don’t necessarily prove the student who passes them is capable of the higher-level thinking and analysis that businesses say are needed in today’s workplace.

The final vote on HB 5 was 145-2, and the measure is now headed to the Senate, where that body’s version of education reform was pulled from the floor Wednesday after objections from state leaders – including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes – that the testing regime was not tough enough. The amended version of HB 5 is posted here on the free legislative web site.

The House vote the signature water bill, House Bill 4 by Natural Resources Chairman Allan Ritter, had only 40 amendments filed but the debate was a little more contentious. Ritter’s bill sets out programs to support education and conservation efforts, provide a revolving loan account for cooperation with local governments and subsidizes local water projects.

Conservative legislators tried to strip out conservation requirements and cripple the loan program, but all of those amendments were ultimately either withdrawn and overwhelmingly defeated. Several members used the debate to set the stage for the coming argument about funding the water plan by drawing money from the rainy day fund, objecting to the damage such a withdrawal might do to the state’s credit rating.

There was little evidence supporting those claims, and eventually legislators will have to decide what the rainy day fund can be used for. After the refusal last session to use the fund to pay for public education, and the current argument against using it to develop water in a growing, drought-stricken state, it’s difficult to determine what the acceptable use of the fund should be. Comptroller Susan Combs estimates it may reach more than $11 billion by the end of the next session, and there is a constitutional cap – figured as a percentage of the budget – on how large the fund can get.

Nevertheless, the arguments against HB 4 portend a fight to get the funding for the programs that were approved last week. Using the rainy day fund requires two-thirds of the members of each house to vote yes, and it seems pretty clear conservative groups that influence a block of legislators – particularly in the House but a growing chunk in the Senate as well – will try to stop that spending even though in this case Governor Rick Perry is in favor of the proposal.

The final, amended version of HB 4 is also on the state’s web site at here.

The length of the HB 5 debate pushed many of last Tuesday’s committee meetings to this week. The House Transportation Committee will basically revisit last week’s agenda when it meets this week. On that agenda is chairman Larry Phillips bill allowing toll authorities across the state remedies to collect unpaid tolls by, among other things, prohibiting renewal of vehicle registration.

At the end of this week, the House will take up the budget vote, a debate set for Thursday that some members expect to spill over to its Friday session. House budget writers have attempted to reign in the amendment-free-for all by requiring that any amendment that spends additional money show where the money will come from.

The education and water discussion are not over, since the Senate has not yet had its shot at those issues. Whether Senators pass bills from their own committees or take up the House legislation as it comes over, it’s guaranteed that the final version of all those items will be hammered out in conference committees few of us will have access to.

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