Published 4:20 pm Saturday, March 30, 2019

(Austin)  Members of the Senate Finance Committee will vote on a final budget proposal to send to the full body next week, according to the panel’s chair.  Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound told the 14 members of her committee following the adoption of workgroup recommendations Thursday that she expects to present a completed document for approval on Wednesday.  Since mid-February, members have been working in smaller groups divided by the budget article to develop recommendations based on agency requests and available revenue. After the votes to approve the individual workgroup products, all that remains is for the Legislative Budget Board to collate the document and make technical corrections.

Included in the approved recommendations is $9 billion in additional funding for public education, including $2.7 billion to provide property tax relief, the primary source of school funding in Texas.  Another $2.3 billion will go to general education reform with the remaining $4 billion marked to provide a $5,000, across-the-board annual pay raise to every teacher in the state. Identified as the session’s top priorities by state leadership in January, workgroup and Education Committee chair Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood said this budget will make significant progress on education and tax reform.  “At the end of the day I know we are going to take very large steps to improve our education outcomes for our students while providing meaningful tax savings for our businesses and our homeowners, and we’re also going to improve the pay of our teachers,” he said.

On the floor this week, Houston Senator Joan Huffman passed two key pieces of legislation.  Monday, the Senate approved her plan, SB 12, to shore up the state’s struggling teacher pension fund.  Her plan would increase contribution rates from active public school employees, gradually upping the amount withheld from their paychecks for the Teacher Retirement System from 7.7 percent to 8.25 percent by 2024.  The state pays 6.8 percent of total public school employee payroll into the fund annually, that number would also rise to 8.25 percent by 2024. School districts would raise contributions from 1.5 percent of payroll to 2 percent. With $47 billion in unfunded liabilities, the Legislature has periodically had to pay general revenue into the fund to maintain solvency.  That’s not very sensible, said Huffman. “This is long-term planning showing fiscal responsibility,” she said. “This plan is far more cost efficient than simply attempting to contribute one-time infusions of cash every so often.” Her bill would move the plan into fiscal soundness, cover unfunded liabilities, and also provide for a one-time bonus monthly annuity payment of $500 to beneficiaries sometime in the next biennium.  

Huffman’s second major bill this week would strengthen reporting requirements for incidents of sexual assault on college campuses, and include penalties for employees who don’t abide by them.   Huffman said that one in five women experience some form of sexual violence or harassment while in college. She believes that ensuring that all allegations of these offenses are reported and investigated will help survivors find justice.  SB 212 would require that any employee at a public or private institution of higher education who sees or has knowledge of an incident of sexual assault or harassment report it to the campus Title IX coordinator for investigation. It would require regular reports from the coordinator to the university president, and a report every semester from the president to the institution’s governing board about the number, disposition, and actions taken regarding these investigations.   Violating these provisions would result in termination for employees and even legal action if the individual knowingly failed to report or intentionally tried to cover it up. Universities that aren’t in compliance could face a fine of up to $2 million.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 1st at 2 p.m.