Published 8:39 pm Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Special to The Leader

Two newly formed workgroups will examine the two largest slices of the Texas budget under direction from the Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson. Nelson took the opportunity of the first meeting of the regular session to create two panels, one charged with getting a handle on skyrocketing state health care costs and another to find a new, better way to pay for public education. “We’ve got to address them,” she said. “These two issues deserve a deep dive and that work needs to begin today.”

Nelson appointed Senate Education Committee Chair Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood to head up the education finance workgroup and told him the goal is to find potential replacements for the current funding structure. “The proposals must be less complicated, innovative and, most importantly, that meets the needs of our students,” she said.   Taylor said that this session presents a unique chance to take a look at a massive and complicated system. “Now we’ve got a very large structure that was not designed to be the large structure that it is,” he said. “It is time for the new 21st century school finance system, that we scrape it all off and design a system that includes 21st century weights and measures…we have things in our current system that are 30 and 40 years old.”

In the past, education finance reform attempts have come under a court order following rulings that the finance system failed to meet the constitutional requirements . Last May, the state Supreme Court upheld the current finance system, but told legislators they should find a better way to pay for public education. “[Students] deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, non-sclerotic system fit for the 21st century,” read the court’s decision.   Nelson alluded to this statement in her directive to the newly formed workgroup. “We need to have a whole new method of school finance,” she said. “No more Band-Aids. We need to start over”

Senator Charles Schwertner, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, was appointed by Nelson to head up the state health care workgroup. That group will take a look at costs in Medicaid, the teacher and state employee pension programs and health care at state correctional facilities and seek ways to contain costs beginning with the 2018-19 biennium.  It will try to find ways for these programs to collaborate to find best practices and cost savings initiatives. Like Taylor, Schwertner sees this as the perfect time to tackle this huge portion of the state budget. “In light of what is happening at the federal level, with the new administration, the new potential secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Seema Verma as Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services director, what are the opportunities there: instilling personal responsibility, accountability, cost containment, as well as long term fiscal sustainability in the largest portion of our budget,” he said.

The Senate Finance Committee will open agency hearings with the Texas Education Agency beginning Tuesday at 9 a.m. These hearings, where officials from each state agency will appear to present their spending needs for the next biennium, are scheduled Monday through Friday through February 15th.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, January 24 at 11 a.m.