Latest preview of the 85th Texas Legislature Express
Date Posted: 12/02/2016 | Author: Mark Wiggins
As the Man in Black famously sang, "When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry." Johnny Cash was singing about the hard life in Folsom Prison, but the sentiment perfectly captures the feeling some Texas Capitol watchers have as the legislative locomotive rounds the bend for another 140-day odyssey of lawmaking. The regular session of the 85th Texas Legislature is approaching like a freight train, and the biggest question around town is which of its three conductors will wind up with the tightest grip on the controls. Will it be the fire-stoking lieutenant governor? The sure-handed house speaker? The governor with the deft touch? While the latter has kept his plans close to the vest, political observers got a little better look this week at how the leaders of the state's two legislative bodies view their priorities. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released his third set of legislative priorities this week, bringing his total up to 25 items. The list is heavy on culture wars issues, with top billing given to issues involving bathrooms, abortion, and immigration. It's customary to reserve the lowest bill numbers for the highest priority items, and Lt. Gov. Patrick's top ten list also includes a "Pass the Trash" bill (SB 7), aimed to elevate reporting requirements and penalties for inappropriate student-teacher relationships, as well as an alternative school choice vehicle (SB 3) reserved for vouchers. The lieutenant governor has continued to beat the drums for an alt-school choice measure in the run-up to session, and expanded upon his rationale this week to a small tea party split-off group in Tarrant County. Patrick accused Texas schools of failing, yet having plenty of money. Both claims crumble under scrutiny. Texas schools continue to perform well, despite billions in still-unrecovered cuts from 2011 and a steadily declining state share of education funding responsible for shifting the burden of paying for schools onto local homeowners. According to those in the audience, Patrick admitted that money public school children lose to vouchers would not be reimbursed, and wouldn't answer a question about accountability. Concerns about accountability for private businesses receiving public taxpayer money and already inadequate public school funding make the current session a difficult environment for vouchers. The alt-choice lobby has responded by specifically targeting teachers with a payroll deduction measure (SB 13) that would prohibit the ability of teachers to safely and securely contribute to organizations, including ATPE, which support their interests in the legislature. Make no mistake. This measure is directly tied to the voucher fight, and voucher backers hope teachers won't notice. This measure has been declared a priority by Lt. Gov. Patrick, and it is already being fiercely lobbied in order to silence teachers for daring to raise their voices in the Texas Capitol. We encourage all of our members to contact their state senators and representatives and urge them to oppose this measure at all costs. Despite what's brewing in the Texas Senate, vouchers are again expected to get a chilly reception in the pragmatic Texas House of Representatives. Speaking to state politicos Tuesday at a symposium hosted by the Texas Tribune, Texas Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) pointed out the variety of school choice options now available, including public charter schools and district transfers, drawing a distinction between alternative-choice ideas like vouchers. "It depends on what you mean by school choice," Straus explained. "I think we ought to keep an open mind about all that." While he hasn't released a bullet list like his senate counterpart, Speaker Straus has committed to focus broadly on critical areas, such as education, transportation, and the ongoing crisis within the state's Child Protective Services and foster care system. Straus indicated that the lieutenant governor's politically explosive bathroom bill would not be "the most urgent concern of mine," and instead emphasized the pressing need to address a broken and unfair school finance system that affects all Texas schoolchildren. Straus urged members to "listen to their school districts" regarding school finance, highlighting the failure of the Robin Hood system to meet the needs of districts such as Houston and Austin. "I'm not expecting a miracle," Straus said of the school finance challenge, while at the same time warning against inaction. "Not addressing this may be more problematic than addressing it." There's still plenty of room for positioning before the 85th Texas Legislature Express roars into the station on Jan. 10. Now is a critical time for letting legislators know where our members stand with regard to vouchers (SB 3) and the critical payroll deduction measure (SB 13). By contacting your legislators this month and expressing forcefully and early that your voice will not be silenced, you'll help clear the track ahead of what could otherwise be some rough riding. If everyone pitches in to make the Express a success, we'll be able to sing the refrain together, "And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away."
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