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Trent Ashby

The bail bill and the quorum

Now that there’s a quorum (or a “quorum”, if you prefer) in the State House again, bills other than the voter suppression bill are getting hearings and will be moved forward for votes. Nearly all of them are terrible, and most of them will breeze on through, but some of them may run into some resistance. These bills may actually have trouble passing if there are enough Democrats to vote against them. I say all that as preamble to say that there are reasons why legislators who had previously held firm on breaking quorum may want to reconsider.

A Texas House committee controlled by Republicans held off on advancing their party’s priority bail reform bill after a four-hour hearing Saturday, during which lawmakers from both parties took aim at a provision that would bar most charitable organizations from posting bail for certain defendants.

The news came as a pleasant surprise to opponents who expected the controversial measure to advance after state Rep. Trent Ashby, a Lufkin Republican in charge of the committee, announced at the outset of the hearing that he would call for a vote before adjourning.

Reversing course hours later, Ashby said the committee would probably consider the bill at its Monday hearing on unrelated legislation, citing the need for lawmakers to address issues raised during public testimony Saturday. He did not say how lawmakers might amend the 35-page bill, though a majority of committee members — including two Republicans who voted to advance prior versions — appear to oppose the restrictions on charitable bail organizations.

“What difference does it make where the money comes from?” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “If this is a way just to pay the bail bondsmen, let’s just say it.”

While Geren and state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, expressed newfound criticism of that portion of the bill, Saturday’s hearing otherwise closely resembled one held six weeks ago, when the same committee advanced an earlier iteration of the measure on a party-line vote.

Those who support the bill, most of whom are Republicans, continued to argue that the measure would crack down on the growing number of defendants charged with new felonies and misdemeanors while out on bond — a tally that has tripled in Harris County since 2015 — by limiting the opportunity for defendants to be released on no-cost personal bonds and giving judges more information about a defendant’s criminal history when setting bail.

The mostly Democratic opponents of the bill also rehashed their argument that the limits on no- and low-cost bonds would do nothing to curtail violent crime, with some pointing to a Houston Chronicle analysis that found most people accused of murder while out on bond in Harris County had secured their release by paying bail — a circumstance not directly addressed in the bill. They also say the proposed restrictions on personal bonds are overly expansive and would further overcrowd Texas jails, exacerbating an already massive backlog of cases that they say is mostly what’s driving the problem.

See here for the previous update. Let’s be clear about a couple of things. There’s plenty more about this bill that’s bad than just the ban on charitable organizations paying for bail. It would be simple enough for the Republicans to remove that provision (as they did with the “souls to the polls” and “make it easy for a judge to overturn an election” parts of the voter suppression bill), then pat themselves on the back and have it all declared to be fixed and vote it forward. They could also strip that provision from the House version, then have it added back in when it goes to conference committee. Dems have extremely limited power here, but if they are in full attendance that at least reduces the margin of error Republicans have, and allows for the possibility that the bill could just die because there weren’t enough votes for it. That’s a victory that has a chance to be longer-term. There are no guarantees – indeed, I’d call this scenario against the odds – but it could happen. But only if there are enough Democrats present to make that an actual possibility.

I’m not arguing for or against what any individual member should do at this point. There are still legitimate concerns for the remaining holdouts, and there needs to be a lot of work done to repair relationships where possible. All I am saying here is that now that there is a quorum, and other bills are being brought up for hearings and votes, the decision to attend or not at this point is more complex and nuanced than it was before. Please take that into consideration when other members of the Democratic caucus do or do not announce their return.

The Lege has its voter suppression hearings

People showed up to say something about it, that much is for sure.

Hundreds of Texans lined up at the state Capitol on Saturday for their first opportunity during the special legislative session to testify before lawmakers over the renewed effort to pass new voting restrictions.

Both House and Senate committees are expected to take up the respective versions of GOP-backed legislation, and as of early Saturday afternoon more than 300 people had signed up to speak.

Lufkin Republican Rep. Trent Ashby, chair of the select committee hearing the House’s voting bill, said he expected bills to be advanced out of committee at the close of the Saturday hearing, meaning the House’s bill could get a floor vote as early as next week.

In other words, there’s a chance that this passes the House before restoring legislative funding does. As of this writing, that hadn’t even gotten a committee vote in the Senate. Way to assert your agency, y’all.

I drafted this yesterday afternoon, when things were just getting started. I will not be staying up late to see the inevitable result. That Trib story will surely be updated at some point, and they have a video embed for the hearings as well. The redoutable Emily Eby is doing the live-tweet thing again, and that will be a rich source of information for you. Catch up on what happened, likely well into the night, and then try to enjoy your day today.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story. Testimony on the bills from the public – which is to say, people who showed up by 8 AM to have their voices heard – did not begin until 1:41 AM, more than 17 hours later. As I type this, it is still going on. This is how little the Republicans who are pushing this legislation care about public opinion.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about how long it took for anyone to be heard on this.

Looks like (maybe) we have a Speaker

I give you Rep. Dade Phelan. May he not spontaneously combust in spectacular and self-inflicted fashion like a drummer for Spinal Tap the last Speaker.

Rep. Dade Phelan

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, announced Wednesday he has the votes needed to become the next speaker of the Texas House and soon after released a bipartisan list of 83 members supporting his candidacy. That number, should it hold, is more than enough votes for Phelan to win the gavel when the Legislature convenes in January.

But Phelan’s main competitor for the speakership, state Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, indicated in a statement he was not backing down from the race and said the GOP caucus should meet per its bylaws to “vote to back a candidate … as soon as possible.”

The news comes hours after the GOP maintained its majority over the lower chamber, fending off a well-funded challenge from Democrats who had hoped to flip the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

“The race is over,” Phelan said at a noon press conference at the Texas Capitol, saying he has a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” and a “broad coalition of support” from Democrats. A candidate needs a majority of the 150-member chamber in order to win the gavel and preside over the House.

As election results came in Tuesday, the eight candidate field for speaker — four Democrats and four Republicans — seemed to consolidate into two camps: a group supporting Phelan and another backing Ashby. Both candidates had filed for the gavel in recent days as the race quickly escalated heading into Election Day.

On Tuesday night, one Republican in the race, state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, announced she was backing Ashby for the job. And on Wednesday morning, another Republican in the race, Chris Paddie of Marshall, announced he was supporting Phelan.

“Last night … was a very long, long process — and now it’s time to heal,” Phelan said at the press conference. “The work of the 150 members coming together to serve Texas begins today.”

There had been some Speaker-related news on Monday and even Tuesday, and I had prepped a post about it, which I knew would likely become obsolete as soon as we knew the House situation. And indeed, here we are. That draft is beneath the fold, if you’re interested. Needless to say, the next Legislature has a long to-do list in front of it, and a Speaker who can help get the main things done in a reasonable way will be welcomed by the members. One who can also tell Dan Patrick to go pound sand and who will never commit the classic blunder of saying stupid stuff to Michael Quinn Sullivan, especially when there might be a recorder in operation, would be nice. Good luck to Rep. Phelan if he is indeed the presumptive Speaker. As noted in the story, Rep. Ashby, who has now withdrawn from the race and backed Rep. Morrison, does not see this as being over. Reform Austin, which notes that three of the four Democrats who had filed for Speaker are on that letter Phelan released, has more.

(more…)

We need an official Speaker candidate tracker

We’re up to five now, and we’re likely not done yet.

Rep. Trent Ashby

State Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Cyrier of Lockhart join two Democrats in seeking the gavel: Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio. More candidates are expected to file, perhaps after the Nov. 3 election once it’s clear which party will be in control of the chamber.

In statements, both Ashby and Cyrier pointed to the legislative session beginning in January — and the challenges state lawmakers will all but certainly have to tackle — to help make their pitch for why they’re the best candidate for the job.

“Given the collective challenges we will face in upcoming legislative session, as we continue our battle with COVID-19 and work to balance a budget despite revenue challenges, it is critically important that the next Speaker fosters the trust and cooperation necessary to overcome these challenges and deliver the results that all Texans expect and deserve,” Ashby, who has served in the House since 2013, said.

Cyrier, who has served in the House since 2015, said the session “will be a demonstration of Texans’ resilience.”

“My top priority as speaker will be to work with all members of the House and build consensus during what is sure to be a challenging session,” Cyrier said.

Paddie, who has served in the lower chamber since 2013, did not immediately release a statement about his bid.

As noted, Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Trey Martinez Fischer are already in. None of the three Republicans were among the crowd that had made a move towards running for Speaker before the last session; five of those seven will be in the 2021 Lege, so there is definitely the possibility of a larger field. I should note that Rep. Thompson picked up the endorsements of her fellow Harris County Democratic legislators, and also of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, thus giving her the most supporters for now, though still far from a majority.

We’ll have a much better idea of how this may shake out once we know how many Ds and how many Rs there will be. And as a reminder: Right after the election is when some number of members announce their intent to step down, thus necessitating a special election to replace them. Rep. Drew Spinger is in the runoff for SD30, scheduled for December 19, so his seat may become vacant right before the opening gavel as well. I say this all because the number we have on November 4 may be different than the number we have on January 4, and that could have a real effect on who has enough votes to actually become Speaker. The potential for chaos, and maybe even some shenanigans, is quite high. The Lege is never more entertaining when those things are true.

UPDATE: And now there are six:

Possibly by the time you read this, there will be more announced candidates. You see what I mean when I say we need a tracker.

UPDATE: And now there are seven:

All members of the House that are not running for Speaker, please raise your hand.

Speaker’s race? What Speaker’s race?

Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.

Found on the Twitters

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?

“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.

Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”

The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.

[…]

Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.

Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.

In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.

None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.

Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.

Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.

“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”

[…]

In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.

On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.

Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.

I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.

Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.

It’s all about the tape

You want to hear the recording of that conversation between Speaker Dennis Bonnen and MQS in which Bonnen supposedly trashed a bunch of Republican legislators? You can’t hear it unless MQS wants you to.

Found on the Twitters

For the past week, Texas Republicans, Democrats and even Speaker Dennis Bonnen have called for the full release of audio that allegedly captures him attacking members of his party and making crude remarks about House colleagues.

But now some of those who listened to the audio are calling for the full recordings to be withheld from the public.

The fear? Mutually assured destruction.

“Any representative calling for this to be released in its unredacted, unedited form hasn’t heard it, because if you had heard it you wouldn’t want it to be released,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, who listened to the recordings last week.

Toth is among at least a half dozen people who say they’ve listened to the full audio of a conversation captured by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. He has roiled the state Capitol with accusations that Bonnen and House GOP Caucus chairman Dustin Burrows asked Sullivan to target a list of 10 Republican legislators ahead of next March’s primary.

Six people who say they listened to the audio have confirmed Sullivan’s side of the story, despite Bonnen saying publicly that Sullivan is lying. Sullivan last week began allowing Republican lawmakers, party leaders and conservative activists listen to the audio in the presence of his lawyer.

[…]

The list of supposed Republican targets includes Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal and John Raney of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

From that list, Parker and Clardy have told news outlets they have listened to the recording, but it’s unclear how many others have listened to it. Parker declined further comment to the insider newsletter Quorum Report. Clardy called the comments on the recording “repugnant” and said it was “the most disappointing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sullivan has denied Democrats a chance to listen to the audio, even those who he says were mentioned by name. He has also denied requests from news outlets to hear the recording.

See here for the previous update. Democrats of course want the full recording to be released, as do some Republicans, but MQS is gonna do what MQS is gonna do, and as long as only a select few get to hear it, it keeps his name squarely in the news. What more could an egotist like him want? All I know is I haven’t run out of popcorn yet.

The Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle

As they say, pass the popcorn.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Less than three weeks after state lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 legislative session, an unusual meeting convened with unlikely conferees from opposite ends of the Texas Capitol power structure.

On one side: Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and top ally Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, both fresh off a first session that had left lawmakers trumpeting the no-nonsense, landmark school finance and property tax legislation set to soon become law.

On the other: Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist, whose Empower Texans organization had just unsuccessfully fought a number of the big measures that passed, prompting political observers to wonder whether the group’s influence within the Republican Party had hit a new low.

What happened in that June 12 meeting has become a major point of dispute, and the uncertainty surrounding it has roiled a GOP-controlled House heading into one of the most important election cycles in recent history.

On Thursday, Sullivan went public with an online post detailing his version of the story: Burrows gave Sullivan a list of 10 fellow House GOP members to target during the 2020 primary elections. In return, Texas Scorecard, an Empower Texans operation that bills itself as a news site, would receive long-denied House media credentials when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021. Sullivan linked to a letter that Bonnen sent on June 27 claiming that Sullivan, who had sent his own letter earlier that month to reject the offer, had “a misimpression of our meeting” and that no such deal had ever been on the table.

And on Friday evening, Bonnen, though he did not explicitly mention Sullivan’s allegation about the 10-member list, forcefully denied Sullivan’s version of the story — and recounted his version of how that meeting played out in an email sent to House Republicans that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

According to Bonnen, the two ran into one another at a Houston airport after the legislative session ended. “I approached him and asked him what his problem was with the House.” Bonnen wrote. “It was a short and curt exchange, and he asked me at that time if he could meet with me. I said ‘sure.'”

You can see Bonnen’s letter to House members here, and Ross Ramsey’s recap of the situation here. The main lesson to take away from this is, of course, that Sullivan is a toxic force that should be avoided at all costs. In the meantime, Republicans are welcome to fight among themselves all they want. Now where’s that popcorn?

Here come the anti-Texas Central bills

From the inbox:

[Tuesday], a group of key state lawmakers filed a slate of legislation to push back against Texas Central Railway’s controversial proposal to construct a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Senators Birdwell (R-Granbury), Creighton (R-Conroe), Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Perry (R-Lubbock), and Schwertner (R-Georgetown) joined with Representatives Ashby (R-Lufkin), Bell (R-Magnolia), Cook (R-Corsicana), Schubert (R-Caldwell), and Wray (R-Waxahachie) to file a total of 18 bills addressing a number of concerns ranging from protecting landowners threatened by eminent domain abuse to ensuring the state isn’t later forced to bail out the private project with taxpayer dollars.

[…]

The following bills were filed this morning:

SB 973 by Creighton/HB 2168 by Bell (Railroad Determination Before Surveys) – prohibits a private high-speed rail entity from entering private property to conduct a survey unless the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) first determines that the surveying entity is, in fact, a railroad.

SB 974 by Creighton/HB 2181 by Cook (Option Contract Protection) – voids any high-speed rail option contracts held by a high-speed rail entity upon a bankruptcy initiated by or against the entity.

SB 975 by Birdwell/HB 2169 by Schubert (Security Requirements) – provides a framework of minimum security requirements to be followed during the construction and operation of a private high-speed rail line. Requires the high-speed rail authority to coordinate security efforts with state and local law enforcement, as well as disaster response agencies.

SB 977 by Schwertner/HB 2172 by Ashby (No Taxpayer Bailout) – prohibits the legislature from appropriating new funds, or allowing state agencies to utilize existing funds, to pay any costs related to the construction, maintenance, or operation of a private high-speed rail in Texas.

SB 978 by Schwertner/HB 2104 Bell (Property Restoration Bond) – requires a private high-speed rail entity to file a bond with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sufficient to restore property used for the rail service to the property’s original conditions if the service ceases operation.

SB 979 by Schwertner/HB 2179 by Cook (Right of Repurchase for Non-HSR Use) – prohibits an entity that operates or plans to operate a high-speed rail from using property acquired for purposes other than high-speed rail. If the high-speed rail authority doesn’t use the property for that specific purpose, the original landowner must be given the opportunity to repurchase the land.

SB 980 by Schwertner/HB 2167 by Schubert (Put Texas First) – prohibits any state money from being used for any purpose related to a privately owned high-speed rail, unless the state acquires and maintains a lien in order to secure the repayment of state funds. Requires that the state’s lien be superior to all other liens, effectively making Texas a priority creditor.

SB 981 by Kolkhorst/HB 2162 by Wray (Interoperability) – requires an entity constructing a high-speed rail line in Texas to demonstrate compatibility with more than one type of train technology.

SB 982 by Perry/HB 2173 by Ashby (High-Speed Rail Feasibility Study) – upon request of a legislator, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) must generate a feasibility study of a proposed high-speed rail project. The study must indicate whether the project is for a public use, whether it will be financially viable, and what impact of the project will have on local communities.

The full press release is here, and a Chron story about it is here. I was expecting some bills to be filed for the purpose of throwing sand in TCR’s gears, but this was more than I expected. Still, the basic dynamics of this fight have not changed as far as I can tell. The legislators leading it are primarily rural – even the ones who are based in suburban areas represent a lot of rural turf as well – and there are only so many of them. I’ve yet to see any legislator from a big urban area sign on to this. Which is not to say that at least some of them won’t go along with their rural colleagues, especially the urban Republicans, but that’s the ground on which this battle will be fought and won. If these legislators can convince enough of their urban colleagues to join them, then TCR is in a world of hurt. If not – if TCR can hold on to the urbanites – then it can survive the session and maybe get to a point where actual construction begins. Getting one or more of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Joe Straus, and Ken Paxton to pick a side would help that faction greatly as well. Keep an eye on these bills as the committee hearings get off the ground. The DMN has more.

Where we begin with school finance

A nice overview from the Trib on school finance, where the problems are many and the budget situation is non-optimal.

The current system is held together by a number of short-term fixes that have not been updated or reformed in decades. The Texas Supreme Court upheld the funding system as constitutional in May, and at the same time put the onus on state lawmakers to reform it — but few believe a major overhaul will come without a court order.

Even if legislators decided to tackle an overhaul of the whole system, experts say there is not enough money in state coffers to increase state spending, lower local spending and relieve Texans upset about rising property taxes. For now, some lawmakers are backing a simple plan to increase money to all school districts through the general appropriations bill, instead of taking apart the complex school finance system. Others have filed bills to tweak individual weights in the system, which provide additional money for disadvantaged student populations.

[…]

Legislators will also have to decide this year whether to re-up a program that provides extra funding for fewer than 200 districts that would otherwise have lost money in previous school finance rewrites. When the Legislature reduced property taxes by a third in 2006, it guaranteed school districts at least the same state funding they received for the 2005-06 school year by creating the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative.

That aid expires Sept. 1, but the districts still receiving the money are clamoring for an extension. “At some point, it does need to go away for the sake of more equity. But it can’t fall off a cliff at this point in time,” said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition, which represents the fastest-growing districts in the state. “It does the entire system no good if any part of the system effectively goes bankrupt.”

So far, five legislators have filed bills to extend the funding program. State Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, filed House Bill 811, which would extend funding through 2020-21. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, proposed an extension through 2022-23. Both lawmakers were members of their chambers’ public education committees last session.

King, who is on the short list to chair the House Public Education Committee this session, said some districts are still getting a large chunk of their overall funding through this program and that they cannot be cut off immediately. “I’m going to put a mechanism in place for school districts to roll off of the aid in 2021 and hopefully replace the dollars with another school funding system,” he said.

Other school finance advocates oppose the extension, calling it a “Band-Aid” that exacerbates the inequity among districts.

“It maintains an already inefficient portion of the system,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor districts. Instead, he said, legislators should reform the base formulas so districts have access to a stable source of funds.

The Houston Independent School District will be a major focus this session because its voters in November rejected sending $165 million in local property taxes to poorer school districts. In the Texas finance system, districts with a wealthier tax base spend local money to help educate students in districts with less property tax money, as part of the “Robin Hood” or “recapture” system.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has warned that the state will probably move commercial properties from Houston ISD tax rolls to those of a nearby district. Houston legislators will be under pressure to find a way to ease the burden, as those property owners could face higher tax rates in their newly assigned districts.

David Thompson, an attorney representing Houston ISD, said a legislative win for Houston on school finance could also mean a win for other districts. “There are particular issues that would address some of the concerns in Houston and at the same time be helpful for schools across the state,” he said.

The state should update its formulas for determining which districts get transportation funding, and the state should also provide full-day pre-K funding for all districts, Thompson said.

“Everybody starts by saying, ‘There’s no money.’ There is,” he said. The state should allow the local dollars people are already paying to stay in education, instead of “siphoning local property taxes” for non-education purposes, he said.

But some legislators are saying Houston ISD voters dug themselves deeper into a school funding hole and should live with the repercussions. “I don’t think the Legislature has a lot of appetite to let Harris County out of recapture when everybody else is paying it,” King said.

[…]

School finance experts agree that increasing the basic allotment, the base funding each district receives per student, is likely to be the most popular way of changing the system. The House Public Education Committee recommended this approach in its interim report.

“The amount we set for the basic allotment drives the entire school finance system and, given our current system, increasing that amount would be a prudent move to help all districts,” said State Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin. “It’s important to note, this method can also be achieved through the General Appropriations Act alone, so it may also be the most realistic thing the Legislature can do this session without having to pass a stand-alone bill.”

It’s likely to be a favored proposal in the House, Ashby said. But like many other plans, it requires more dollars to public education, a difficult challenge this session, given that lawmakers have less money to spend than they did when they last met in 2015.

There’s also vouchers, the A-F grading system for accountability ratings, continued discontent with STAAR, curriculum and graduation requirements, etc etc etc. It’s important to remember that the local property tax boom that helped lead HISD and other districts into recapture is also a huge boon for the state budget, and not something legislators will give up easily. I think the best case scenario is some more money from general revenue, adjustments to the funding formula for transportation and pre-K as David Thompson noted, and a temporary extension of the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative with a plan to fix it next session. HISD will still owe recapture money even if all that is done, but I for one would feel a lot less aggrieved by recapture if these things happened, and would support a recapture re-vote to take place before detachment could begin. We’ll see how it goes.

Another story about parents and education cuts

I really want to believe that there’s an uprising in the works and that the Lege could be a very different place for the better next year, but I’m reserving judgment on that for now.

Deep cuts in school funding approved by the Texas Legislature last summer could energize angry parents in a way similar to how the tea party movement mobilized conservatives in 2010. In the 150-seat state House alone, at least 29 candidates who are current or former school board members, or have other education experience, are challenging incumbents or vying for open seats in the May 29 primary.

Seventeen are Republicans and 12 are Democrats — and most are pledging to fix Texas’ broken school finance system and dial back the importance of high-stakes standardized tests.

A possible education backlash has [Rep. Marva] Beck nervous and another incumbent, West Texas Republican Rep. Sid Miller, facing a primary challenge that could be tougher than expected. Among several candidates vying for an open seat in suburban Dallas, meanwhile, is Bennett Ratliff, scion of a well-known Texas political family who says his education background sets him apart from a crowded field.

“Funding is not the whole issue, but you can’t continue to cut, and continue to cut, and continue to cut. At some point it does become about funding,” said Ratliff, a Republican and nine-year veteran of the school board in Coppell, northwest of Dallas. His father is former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and his brother Thomas is on the state Board of Education.

Beck and Miller, who was the author of the sonogram bill, are both awful and richly deserve to be ousted, but I’m not prepared to believe that their opponents will be measurably better, even if we just confine the discussion to the issue of public education. At this point, anything short of a commitment to restore the $5.4 billion in funding that was cut from education plus a commitment to work on closing the structural budget hole caused by the 2006 tax swap leaves too much room for the same old same old. I’m glad there’s something out there other than the nihilists that can put some fear into these guys, I just want to see it translate into better votes.

Carolyn Boyle heads the Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which in 2006 supported at least 10 candidates who unseated incumbents or captured open seats. This year, the PAC has conducted more than 25 interviews with pro-education candidates and will endorse an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

“This could be a game-changer election,” Boyle said. “There are so many candidates with rich education experience.”

Republicans hold a 102-seat super majority in the Texas House and while they will likely lose as many as 10 seats due to redistricting, they will maintain control. But next year they take a different tack.

As I said before, being an educator is nice but hardly sufficient. I love what ParentPAC does and I’ll be keeping a close eye on their endorsements this year – so far, I have received emails announcing their endorsements of Republicans Trent Ashby in HD57, Ed Thompson in HD29, Roger Fisher in HD92, Susan Todd in HD97, Amber Fulton in HD106, Jason Villalba in HD114, Bennett Ratliff in HD115, and Whet Smith in HD138; they have also endorsed Democrat Justin Rodriguez in HD125 – but I have not forgotten that all of their previous Republican endorsees marched off the cliff with the rest of their party last year. Not a one as far as I can tell argued against the cuts to education – hell, not a one as far as I can tell argued against the twice-as-big education cuts that were in the House budget. How do I know that once they’ve been elected they won’t take Rick Perry’s budget suicide pledge and give us more of what we got last time? I really really hope I’m being overwrought about this, because we’re not getting a Democratic majority any time soon and we need there to be at least a decent contingent of pro-education Republicans in Austin, but I’m not seeing what I want in the rhetoric just yet.

Republican Mike Jones is a former college instructor and member of the school board in Glen Rose, southwest of Fort Worth, who calls fully funding school districts a centerpiece of his campaign. He says it has raised the profile of his challenge of Miller — a one-time vocational teacher himself who voted in favor of the school cuts.

“It’s like the school district is a Chevy Suburban and it’s been driven by a superintendent … then the state comes and saddles them with a 40,000 pound trailer on the back end of it and starts blaming the Suburban or the principals or the teachers or the kids,” Jones said. “It’s not their fault it’s that trailer put on there. It’s the unfunded mandates and the testing.”

Jones and others have also seized on what they call the state’s over-reliance on standardized testing, which districts are forced to prepare their students for more rigorously than ever despite budgets cuts.

I’m glad to hear this and I agree with what Jones is saying, but it doesn’t take much political courage these days to be anti-standardized testing. I’m happy for these candidates to pursue a more balanced testing policy – as the parent of a rising third-grader, I’ll be delighted to have less to worry about on this score – but let’s not confuse that with a solution for the school finance problem. We may find some savings there, but it’ll be little more than couch cushion money. Dialing back the standardized tests is worth doing on its own merits, but it’s a separate issue from the main event of education funding.

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.