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81st Legislative update

Posted by: tdt -

By Robin Scott


Garnet Coleman, LSG Chair, reported on Tuesday, June 2nd what he termed the "Hits and Misses in the 81st Legislature." Coleman focused on both the accomplishments of the 81st Legislature and the failures.

A few of the accomplishments noted by Coleman as well as what he considered were the short falls or missed opportunities. The Texas Grants Program was among the accomplishments. The program will receive an infusion of much needed funds and is an important step to providing tuition relief to qualifying families. Also included was the ability for the Legislature to use federal stimulus dollars to pass school finance legislation that could be fashioned with limited funding, making changes that will improve the way schools in Texas are funded and provide Texas teachers with a minimum pay raise of $800.

Other achievements were the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, TWIA, which will have enough funding through bonds and other mechanisms so that residents in the 14 Gulf Coast counties will have protection heading into hurricane season.

The 81st Legislature faced a $9.1 billion shortfall coming into session. Legislatures desired to maintain the State’s $9 billion Rainy Day Fund that will be needed to gap shortfalls in the future. On February 17th, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA, passed through the federal government and sent $15.2 billion to Texas for relief, education and economic development. With the help of the AARA, Texas will have a $182.3 billion budget that had no major cuts for state agencies and increased funding to many health and human services and education programs.

Senate Bill 1 increased funding for Texas Grants, community mental health centers, CPS workers and business incentives to attract filmmakers and environmentally friendly businesses to Texas. The Bill provided funds for textbooks for public school, correctional officer pay raises, $2 billion in bonds for roads and highways, and a one-time $500 payment to retired teachers and state employees. The Rainy Day Fund remained in tact and will continue to be available in the future.

The Small Business Tax Relief Bill will exempt businesses that earn revenue up to $1 million a year from paying the margins tax until December 31, 2011. Currently, businesses that earn up to $300,000 are exempt from the margins tax. Although this bill will reduce revenue going into the Property Tax Relief Fund and will therefore requireadditional expenditures for that purpose from General Revenue, this important cut will provide a stimulus to many small Texas businesses.

Failures that Coleman viewed as achievements were the failure of Voter Photo ID. The House of Representatives killed the legislation that would have resulted in the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of low income, minority, elderly and disabled Texas voters.

Regarding missed opportunities, Coleman stated that given the public outcry and opposition to "teaching to the test," there was hope that the new accountability bill would make changes to turn away from a high stakes "test and punish" system and enact reforms that would use multiple assessment measures, focus on the diverse needs of students, and assist schools with high concentrations of at-risk kids. The House attempted to address these issues, but changes made in the Senate and the Conference Committee led to passage of a complex 187 page bill that includes some good elements, but still relies heavily on testing and punishment. The final version of House Bill 3 eliminates only third grade testing in the elementary grades and replaces the high school TAKS exams with 12 standardized end-of-course exams, with a requirement that students pass the English III and Algebra II exams to graduate. The Legislature made great strides this session in tackling issues important to Texas families, but there were several missed opportunities that died because of a lack of will by members.
Bipartisan legislation that would have created a buy-in program for the CHIP Program for 80,000 children from working families failed to pass.

Over $500 million in federal dollars were left on the table that would have provided a safety net for unemployed Texans in these tough economic times. The result will be an increase in taxes on Texas businesses - a poor policy decision during a recession. No cap was placed in tuitions rates, which were deregulated in 2003. The deregulations have hit middle-income families hardest who are forced to pursue private loans, causing graduates to enter the workforce buried in debt.

Medicaid reforms failed that would have changed the system to a 12-month application process and simplify filing for Texas families and would have given a quarter million children the opportunity to see a doctor.