Published 8:14 am Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Senate’s chief negotiator on the budget announced Saturday a deal had been reached between the House and Senate on how to pay for state services over the next two years. “White smoke has emerged from our conclave, and we have reached a consensus on what I believe is a responsible, compassionate and smart budget for the people of Texas,” said Flower Mound Senator and Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson.   Later this week, the compromise budget will be presented to both chambers for a final vote.  A simple majority in both chambers is all that’s needed to send the budget to the Governor’s desk.

Sunday, the Senate approved a bill its author says will put more than $500 million more towards public education over the next two years. HB 21, by Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor, is a scaled-back version of a House bill to begin the process of reforming the way the state pays for education over the next two years. “This is a start towards what we would like to do in the interim and really come up with a new revamp of the whole system,” he said. “This wasn’t the best budgetary cycle to start that.” The bill includes more money for schools to teach students with dyslexia, a six-year phaseout of the small district penalty in the formula funding, and $150 million in funds to wean districts off of a hold harmless fund passed in the wake of the property tax cut of 2006.   Also added by the Senate is a pared-down school choice plan, one that would allow students with special needs to apply for state funds to pay for private school tuition.   Taylor said that under the bill, no district will lose money, and more than 90 percent of districts will get more funding. The bill now heads back to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

The Senate passed on Monday a bill intended to increase placements of foster children with relatives.   A child is removed from a home through Child Protective Services will either end up in foster care or they can be placed with relatives who are willing to care for the child. Research shows that the latter option leads to better outcomes for the child and a greater chance of a permanent home. HB 5, by Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner, aims to increase kinship placements by increasing the payments to families who take in these children.   Currently, a family who takes in a relative child to foster gets $1000 up front and then $500 a year after that. HB 5 would significantly increase that amount, offering half of the basic foster care rate, about $385 per month, to kinship care families. Families that make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $73,800 for a family of four, would be eligible for the payments. The bill was amended to cap benefit payments at no more than 18 months

Dallas Senator Royce West, a longtime proponent of the expansion of kinship care, praised the bill. “The question becomes, ‘Should we be supporting the family unit financially as opposed to strangers,’ and the strangers being foster parents,” he said.   “Don’t get me wrong, we need a foster care system, but again, we’ve decided to provide support to strangers to the children as opposed to relatives of the children. I think this right here is a good first step towards looking at it, determining, number one, whether or not it’s working, figuring out what the best practices are, and then how we can improve upon it in the future.” The bill passed the Senate with no objection.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, May 23 at 11 a.m.