Senators reiterate support for education reform

Published 9:28 am Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Special to The Leader

Several members of the Texas Senate emphasized their support for reforming the state’s school finance and retired teacher healthcare systems at a press conference on Tuesday.   As the special session enters its final week, the time to pass legislation designated by Governor Greg Abbott is running out, and these members want to ensure that key bills reach his desk.

These Senators highlighted two measures passed by the body earlier in the session, one to create a special commission to study the way the state pays for public education and one to put more money into TRS-Care, the program that provides health coverage for retired teachers. The first, SB 16, by Friendswood Senator and Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, passed the Senate with unanimous approval twice, once during the regular session and again at the end of July.   The measure now awaits House action. Taylor believes that with no Supreme Court mandate directing them, the Legislature has a unique opportunity to address the state’s 30-year-old school finance system. “With the most recent Supreme Court decision, they have given us the ability to start with a clean slate, and design a school finance system from the ground up,” he said. “A system that includes all the constitutional parameters we know we must meet, yet accounts for the demands and the innovations that the 21st century offers.”

SB 16 would commission an interim panel to examine the issue and make recommendations for top-to-bottom reforms in school finance. “This is not another interim study,” said Taylor. “This proposed commission made up of educators, legislators, members of the business community and members of the community at large will be tasked with making recommendations for a new path forward.”

The Senators also urged action on a bill that aims to reduce out-of-pocket health care expenses for retired teachers. Facing a $700 million shortfall in the system during the regular session, both chambers voted unanimously for HB 3976, which addressed the problem with more than $350 million in aid to the system coupled with an increase in ongoing state contributions and benefit cuts for retirees under 65. In the time between the end of the regular session and the beginning of the special, Houston Senator Joan Huffman said members heard about the changes from retired teachers. “Many of them had fears and concerns that the reforms were not affordable,” she said.   Huffman urged House action on SB 19, by Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, which would use a one-time deferral of state funds to put another $212 million into TRS-Care for the purposes of reducing premiums and deductibles for retired teachers. It also includes a bonus pay structure for active teachers and would pay them between $600 and $1000 in September 2018, depending on their years of service.

Also Tuesday, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee heard testimony relating to a bill that would place restrictions on municipal tree ordinances. Many cities have laws that limit property owners’ ability to remove full grown trees from their land without paying a fee.   The Senate passed a bill earlier in the session that would have ended these municipal ordinances, with some exceptions for public safety and tree health. The bill considered in committee Tuesday, HB 7 sponsored by Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst, moderates that approach by allowing property owners to avoid or reduce the fee by planting another tree either in the same spot or another spot agreed to by the city and property owner. The bill would also limit municipal tree ordinance fees to $400. The bill was approved by the committee 5-3 and will now head to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate will reconvene Thursday, August 10 at 10 a.m.