Published 4:09 pm Friday, March 31, 2017

The Senate passed three major pieces of legislation this week, approving a budget, changes to the state’s voter ID law and a narrowed version of the main school choice bill for the session. The budget is the chamber’s top agenda item every session, and the proposal passed on Tuesday would spend $106.4 billion in state revenue over the next two years. Senate Finance Committee Chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson said that despite tight revenue projections, the Senate’s plan would fund critical state priorities. “This is a lean budget, but it’s also a smart budget,” she said. “It responsibly meets the needs of our state and it preserves our principles of fiscal responsibility that have guided us through tough budgets in the past, and I believe it helps us come out stronger on the other side.”

This budget fully funds the state share of public education and increases appropriations for child protective services and foster care, as well as $800 million for border security and $780 million to renovate state mental facilities. It also appropriates the $5 billion over two years that voters approved for transportation uses last November.   Public universities will see between a six and ten percent cut, due to reforms made to what are termed “special items”. “They were intended to fund certain things, certain programs, certain innovations, some of them going all the way back to 1909, growing in 2016 to $1.1 billion and they never went away,” said Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger, who led the workgroup dealing with special items.   The Senate budget would remove the $1.4 billion spent on special items in 2015 and replace that with $700 million into the standard formulas that determine how much a public college receives.

Monday, the Senate approved changes made to the state’s voter ID law, passed in 2014. Last July, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law violates provisions of the Voting Rights Act and provided guidance on how to fix it.   Houston Senator Joan Huffman presented a bill that she said follows these recommendations but still protects ballot security. “The intent of Senate Bill 5 is to follow all constitutional direction that we’ve received from the federal courts to achieve a bill that is fair to all who want to vote, yet retains the integrity of the vote,” she said.

The changes would allow a person without a valid voter ID to sign an affidavit saying they had a reasonable impediment to obtaining one, such as transportation or work issues, and cast a regular ballot. It would be a felony to intentionally lie on this affidavit.   The bill also permits the use of an expired state photo ID for up to two years after it lapses, and allows people 70 or older to use an expired ID to vote indefinitely.

Finally this week, a slimmed down version of the major school choice bill, SB 3, was approved by the Senate. Narrowed to apply only to families that demonstrate a certain level of financial need or have children with disabilities, the bill would permit them to apply for a portion of the cost to school districts to educate their child and use it for private school tuition. It also creates a tuition scholarship program where private businesses could donate money for private school tuition in exchange for tax credits. The bill was further limited to apply to only the 17 most populous counties in the state, representing about two-thirds of the state population.   Bill author and Senate Education Committee Chair Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood says the bill will help families find the best fit for their students when it comes to education.  “Because that’s what this is all about, allowing parents and students to make choices based on their own individual needs,” he said.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 3 at 2 p.m.