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Bill Hammond

TAB says it wants better pre-K in Texas

I have three things to say about this.

pre-k

The Texas Association of Business wants the state to offer a full school day of taxpayer-funded pre-K and plans to push lawmakers in that direction next year, the group announced this week.

TAB board members voted unanimously in favor of expanding its policy platform to include full-day pre-K at its national affairs conference in Washington, D.C., in May, adding to its agenda of increasing the quality of pre-K programs.

“It will be a difficult issue, but it doesn’t lessen its importance,” said Bill Hammond, the group’s CEO. “The cost of remediation is enormous and can be a detriment to the other children who come to kindergarten prepared to do that level of work. Ensuring that every child, who is currently eligible for public Pre-K, is enrolled in a high quality, full-day program will help close that gap.”

[…]

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is a supporter of pre-K, his focus is on boosting the quality of programs rather than lengthening the school day. Democrats have urged lawmakers to expand the state’s program to a full day, but that issue has been a non-starter in the Republican-led Legislature.

“The problem we face is, there’s a lot of mediocre pre-K out there today,” Hammond said.

The strategy to selling hesitant lawmakers on extending the pre-K school day and approving the money to fund it requires proving to legislators that quality pre-K works, said Hammond whose association is philosophically aligned with Republicans on many other issues.

1. I want to preface things by applauding the TAB for taking this position. I give them a lot of well-earned grief for their often half-assed support of issues where they disagree with their Republican buddies, but at least they do disagree with them on some key topics. Kudos to them for that.

2. Of course, they make things a lot harder for themselves by also supporting so many Republican officeholders who oppose the things they say they support. I get the value of friendly incumbents, but it would be so much easier if their alleged allies weren’t so often their opponents.

3. We ($) all know ($$) what it’s going to take ($$$) to achieve their stated goals here ($$$$), right? Let’s start with the fact that pre-school teachers are ridiculously underpaid. You want better quality pre-K, you’re going to need to pay salaries that are far more competitive if you want to attract high-quality teachers. The median salary for pre-K teachers in Texas is just under $31K. The median salary for kindergarten teachers is just under $51K. Why would anyone choose to be the former if they could be the latter? When pre-K teachers make roughly the same salaries as their elementary-ed counterparts, I guarantee the quality issue will largely solve itself. So be prepared to pay up if this is what you say you want.

Once again with “religious freedom” legislation

I have three things to say about this.

RedEquality

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, says he plans to re-file legislation next session that would supplement the state’s existing law to allow business owners to refuse services to people whose lifestyles clash with their religious beliefs.

“Nobody should be forced to go against their conscience or religious beliefs,” he said.

One of the key principles upon which the country and state were founded is the protection of religious beliefs, he said.

But just like in the 2015 legislative session, Krause is expected to face opposition from groups in the state’s business community. Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said corporations would look to other states when it is time to relocate if Krause’s vision becomes a reality.

“You have to weigh the negative impact on Texas if this were to become the law of the land,” Hammond said. “It’s flustering to see.”

Krause said next legislative session, he again would seek to change the state constitution – which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and voter approval at the ballot box, a much more difficult hurdle to clear than just the simple majority need to pass regular bills – because religious freedom deserves constitutional protection.

“I wanted to put it in the constitution to make it even stronger,” Krause said. “It is still something I think is very important.”

Hammond said the constitutional amendment would be harder to undo if a future legislature decided that the policy is harmful or discriminatory.

1. Of course a constitutional amendment would be harder to undo. That’s the reason why the 2005 Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage amendment was pushed through. We could have gone decades before there was a two thirds majority in both houses to repeal that, and the same would be true for Krause’s anti-equality measure. The good news is that even at current levels, there isn’t a two-thirds majority of Republican legislators in either house (*), so the task of blocking it is eminently doable. Yes, there are a few Democrats out there who can’t be counted on – and yes, I’m looking at you, Sen. Lucio – but we only need to block it in one chamber, and the prospects of picking up at least a seat or two in the House are pretty good. So while the threat of ordinary legislation making it through is very real, the bar for a constitutional amendment is likely too high to clear.

2. Let’s be very clear about this: Despite what Krause and others like him my say, a right to systematically refuse service, housing, employment, or whatever else – the list goes on and on – to a group of people is a right to discriminate, and a right to discriminate against someone is a right to discriminate against anyone. And I’m sorry, but if your sincerely-held beliefs tell you that you must not treat some group of people as fellow human beings, then your sincerely-held beliefs are immoral and wrong.

3. Have I mentioned lately that the business lobby could put its considerable resources towards defeating legislators like Matt Krause and electing ones that better represent their interests? Because they totally could if they really wanted to. Perhaps the North Carolina experience will provide them sufficient incentive to do so.

Get ready for more “religious freedom” bills

Gird your loins.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The next Texas legislative session is almost a year away, but Senate Republicans are already zeroing in on proposals to bolster legal protections for religious opponents of same-sex marriage after its legalization by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

At a hearing of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Wednesday, some Republicans appeared to endorse a piecemeal approach to passing legislation shielding religious objectors to same-sex marriage instead of pushing for more comprehensive state constitutional amendments like Indiana’s embattled “religious freedom” law.

Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston appeared to support prioritizing “targeted pieces of legislation” like last session’s Pastor Protection Act, which codified protections for clergy members who refuse to conduct same-sex marriages, “rather than to try to redefine anything.”

“I think that was an approach that would be a path for the Legislature, for this committee to examine,” said Huffman, who chairs the committee. “I don’t think we really took that push in the last Legislature.”

Piecemeal measures could include protections for faith-based adoption agencies that refuse to place children with same-sex couples, tax accommodations for religious organizations and housing policies at religious schools.

LGBT rights activists have described some of those proposals as “license to discriminate” laws. At Wednesday’s hearing, they reiterated that state lawmakers are still required to strike a balance between religious rights and equal rights, particularly when it comes to behavior by government employees.

There is nothing in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage that “deprives someone of their right to religious liberty,” Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told the committee. But “people who are acting on the behalf of the government are not free to impose their religious beliefs,” she added.

[…]

At Wednesday’s hearing, Bill Hammond, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, warned lawmakers against picking up that mantle in the next legislative session. He recalled Indiana’s religious freedom law, which opponents have claimed enables discrimination against the LGBT community, and the economic fallout that state faced when that law came under scrutiny.

Huffman retorted that the committee’s charge was to focus on religious protections and “not to discriminate.”

“Perception is probably greater than the facts, and that would be the perception around the country that Texas is no longer a welcoming state,” Hammond responded.

Etymological question: If their genders had been reversed, we’d call what Sen. Huffman did with Bill Hammond “mansplaining”. What is the correct technical term for her condescending insistence that she knows better than he does – that in effect, she knows his business better than he does? I’m thinking no such word exists, so what should we call it? Senatorsplaining? There’s an essence to that exchange that I can’t quite isolate, and with it lies the key to identifying the trope. Any suggestions here would be appreciated.

Such questions aside, it’s clear we’re going to get a lot more of that next session. Dan Patrick and his acolytes know what they were elected to do, and “govern” isn’t really on their list. And in case Bill Hammond needs someone else pointing out his business to him, that exchange was with one of his group’s supposed friends. If only your enemies cared so little about your group’s goals and values, Bill.

Do we need a statewide solution for Uber and Lyft?

Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business thinks so.

Uber

Fans of apps like Uber and Lyft may find that the rules governing their operations in one city differ dramatically from those in a community down the street or across the state. That not only creates unnecessary confusion for consumers and drivers who use the apps but also chills and complicates efforts to bring this new technology — or other similar innovations or services — to more Texans across the state. And in some instances, it has forced these companies to cease operations in cities where they were already providing safe rides.

I’ve long been a proponent of forging compromise and pioneering solutions for many of our state’s most vexing problems, and congested roadways are clearly high on that list. Transportation network companies are an important part of a larger effort to reform and transform the state’s transportation system.

That’s why it’s time we brought clarity and consistency to regulations governing these new technologies.

Lyft

Texas boasts a long-running tradition of embracing public policy that encourages competition, increases consumer choice and expands economic opportunity. House Bill 2440 is consistent with this successful Texas model.

[…]

HB 2440 is a way for Texans’ locally elected state lawmakers to ensure that consistent, reasonable requirements and local concerns governing the technology are established and applied statewide.

We should embrace policy that creates clear standards for insurance and ensures that all current and future transportation network technologies fully protect drivers and riders. Background check requirements are extensive and clearly defined in the proposed legislation as well.

I noted HB2440 before, and wasn’t a fan of it then. I still think it should be within the discretion of cities to regulate transportation network companies as they see fit. That said, if this bill or another like it were to clarify some of the thorny insurance questions that have made the process of writing local ordinances that much harder, I’d support that. I get the urge to deal with this in the Legislature, but let’s take a more minimal approach first. Surely someone like Bill Hammond can appreciate that.

Or the Lege could maybe take up the issue of what constitutes minimal safety regulations, since stories like this don’t do much to enhance Uber’s reputation.

Duncan Eric Burton would not have been eligible for a city-issued permit to drive for Uber, a city official said Tuesday, because he had left prison less than three years earlier after serving 14 years on a felony drug charge.

But Burton, like an unspecified number of other drivers for the smartphone-app ride-sharing service, was working without a permit in January, when he allegedly sexually assaulted a passenger.

And Uber’s background check, which he passed, didn’t flag his federal conviction because it occurred more than seven years before he applied to drive for Uber; the company limits background checks for all crimes other than sex offenses to seven years.

The disclosure of Burton’s criminal record just a few days after he was charged with sexually assaulting a drunken passenger raised new questions about the company’s procedures and the city’s capacity to enforce regulations intended to ensure passengers’ safety.

The conviction here was for drug trafficking, not a sex crime, so one can’t really say that this driver was any more of a risk to passengers than anyone else. On the other hand, a “background check” that fails to reveal a 14-year stint in the federal clink doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. You may recall that Lyft left Houston rather than comply with the city-mandated background checks. More recently, Uber’s contention that San Antonio’s background check requirements were too onerous was one reason why they abandoned that city. I’m thinking this is a statement they’d like to have back.

The regulations adopted in December would have required drivers to pass a city-reviewed criminal background check, including fingerprinting, before getting a permit. The proposed changes would have allowed drivers to start operating once they pass the company’s background check, but still required them to pass the city background check within 14 days to get a full permit.

[Chris Nakutis, Uber’s general manager for Texas] said Uber partners with a third party to conduct background checks on people applying to become drivers and that it checks sex-offender registries and criminal databases. That should be sufficient, Nakutis contended.

Yeah, maybe not. And once again, we cannot escape the local control implications.

The idea that it’s in the public’s best interest to have the ability to regulate companies like Uber stripped from municipalities is one that’s hard to fully justify. This business model is a relatively new one, and it’s unclear as of yet what the long-term impact on the transportation infrastructure will turn out to be. It’s possible that Uber and Lyft are the future, and even if they do drive the cab companies out of business, no one will miss them. It’s also possible that there may be an unforeseen impact on the market that would be best managed by an entity that’s more active than the part-time body that is the Texas Legislature.

Furthermore, it’s hard to say that what’s right for Abilene, when it comes to maintaining a regulatory framework for new, technology-based companies, is what’s right for San Antonio. The city government out by the Alamo may be in the pocket of Big Taxi, but if one city wants to take a slow, measured approach to dealing with massively disruptive business models, while others are more keen to embrace them wholeheartedly, it’s hard to see why exactly the Legislature needs to put a stop to that.

In other words, we’re very much in the experimental phase when it comes to Uber, Lyft, etc. It seems to make sense for those experiments to be confined to lower-stakes situations (i.e., one city rather than all of them), flexible regulatory bodies (i.e., a full-time city council rather than a legislature that meets for just a few months every other year), and a multitude of approaches to regulation to see what might be most effective, rather than rushing to a plan that the companies being regulated endorse so strongly that they’re suggesting their customers co-sign, or risk Uber leaving the state of Texas for good.

The contrast between the demand for “states’ rights” and the push to subjugate cities to the will of the state government would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating. We’ll see if this approach, which as the Texas Monthly post notes includes a petition effort by Uber, gets anywhere.

Joining together for equality

Good to see.

RedEquality

Standing alongside Democrats, a representative for the state’s powerful business lobby Tuesday denounced two proposed amendments to the state constitution aimed at bolstering protection for people acting on religious beliefs, which detractors say would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“These amendments are bad for business,” said Bill Hammond, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, at a press conference. “They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business.”

It’s part of a larger debate taking place around the country, most notably in Indiana where public backlash over a similar law forced the state’s governor to sign an amended version that included protections for gays and lesbians. The question Texas lawmakers face is how they should balance their obligation to protect minority groups with a commitment to religious liberty.

[…]

“We’ve all seen the uproar in Indiana,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, at the press conference. “There’s absolutely no doubt that passing these amendments would bring the same uproar and condemnation to Texas.”

Yes, Indiana is an object lesson, though whether or not we heed it remains to be seen. Hammond and TAB are good allies to have in this fight, and as we’ve already seen they can move some votes on this, but it’s important to maintain some perspective.

The two amendments are among more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Legislature, including statutory bills that would similarly allow businesses to discriminate based on religious beliefs. But Hammond said the TAB board hasn’t voted whether to come out against those measures.

TAB President Chris Wallace told the Observer on Monday that he and Hammond plan to recommend that the board oppose bills making it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms according to how they identify.

“Business owners are going to have to be enforcers of this legislation, and we certainly do not want to place any more burdens on business than there already are,” Wallace said.

Wallace said other proposals to bar cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances may present a quandary for TAB. At least one of the bills, Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), would also bar cities from regulating fracking, plastic bags and ride-sharing—a concept TAB supports.

Hammond said TAB likely will wait until other anti-LGBT legislation is scheduled for committee hearings to take an official position. None of the so-called religious freedom measures or bills targeting local LGBT protections has been scheduled for hearings as the session approaches its final 45 days.

“I think what happened in Indiana is hopefully a turning point,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Every day that goes by without a negative bill having a hearing is a good thing.”

So yeah, just because they’re on our side on this issue – and to be fair, they’re on our side on some other key issues, such as supporting the DREAM Act and opposing “sanctuary cities” – doesn’t mean they’re on our side. It’s a marriage of convenience, and as long as we keep that in mind we can team up when it makes sense. There’s more than enough crazy to fight against this session, and Hammond is the kind of old school, business-first conservative that isn’t into that sort of thing. But he’ll align with it when it suits his purpose, and he and his group are a bunch of wusses when it comes to enforcing consequences against politicians they support who then go on to work against their interests. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity, let’s just keep our eyes open as we do. Trail Blazers has more.

Rallying to save the Texas DREAM Act

It won’t be easy.

With a new Texas legislative session underway and incoming state leaders indicating a desire to repeal the Texas Dream Act, supporters of the law are gearing up for a renewed fight to keep it in place.

A group of about 60 students, businessmen and legislators gathered on the south steps of the Texas Capitol on Wednesday to voice their support for the act, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition after graduating from high school if they have lived in Texas for three years and have signed an affidavit promising to seek legal residency.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, a former undocumented immigrant who benefited from the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, was one of several speakers with a personal connection to the issue.

“I know that measures like [the Texas Dream Act] and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 can change a young adult’s life path, as it did mine,” she said.

[…]

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has introduced legislation to repeal the Texas Dream Act. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick said he wants to end the act, and Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has indicated he wouldn’t veto any repeal efforts. Patrick and others have characterized the Dream Act as a reward and incentive for illegal immigration.

At Wednesday’s rally, Bill Hammond, the CEO of the Texas Association of Businesses — which endorsed Patrick for lieutenant governor but has opposed him on this issue — spoke about the economic and social impact of the law.

“They work hard, they go to school, they graduate, they do what we want them to do,” Hammond said. “They will be the future teachers, doctors, architects, engineers in Texas if we allow this program to continue.”

Just as a reminder, the Texas DREAM Act was passed in 2001 with near-unanimous support in both chambers. Times may or may not have changed, but the Republican Party sure has. As for Hammond, he and and his group are going to spend a lot of time fighting the candidates they endorsed on multiple issues. You’d think they’d eventually get tired of that, but I guess a corollary to the definition of insanity is that you believe that this time you really will get a different outcome. (The same problem exists in Congress, too, but, well, you know.) This session is going to be all about what the Republicans want to do, and what (if anything) anyone can do to stop them. Sure hope you kept your receipts on these guys, Bill. Stace, the Observer, the DMN, and Texas Politics have more.

More education policy from Davis

A lot to like here.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Saying she wants to expand Texas high schoolers’ access to technical job training programs, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis announced a plan to create a Career-Technical Coordinating Board.

The plan is the latest in a string of education reform proposals from Davis. It also includes recommendations on college affordability and improving graduation rates.

Davis promoted the proposal Tuesday at an event in San Antonio, saying she hoped to build cooperation among “local industries, community and technical colleges” in helping prepare Texas students for the the technical jobs of the future, according to the proposal.

“At the very time when we need an educated workforce to lead the economy of the future, we need to put quality education within reach for Texas families,” Davis said.

The campaign of her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, noted that Davis’ proposal did not mention how much the plan would cost.

“Sen. Davis continues to present talking points and press releases dressed as policy proposals that contain few details, lack any cost information and will grow the size of government,” said Amelia Chassé, an Abbott campaign spokeswoman. “If this were an assignment, her grade would be ‘incomplete.’ Texans deserve a leader that presents real solutions, not more slogans and fuzzy math.”

Davis said she would work with the Legislature to “find the resources in existing resources to be able to carry forth” the proposal.

See also this subsequent Trib story for more details. Stace, who liked what he saw especially on higher education, correctly predicted the “how much will it cost?” reaction, though to be honest it wasn’t that hard to see it coming. The irony here is that much of what Davis is calling for, and what Lt. Gov. candidate Leticia Van de Putte has called for in her proposal to subsidize community college directly addresses a lot of the things that the business community through mouthpieces like Bill Hammond says it wants. They just don’t want to have to pay for any of it. You’ll see that reflected when Greg Abbott gets around to releasing his education plan after Labor Day. It will, I am certain, be full of things like higher standards, greater accountability, more ways for people to move their children to other schools, and maybe a few other shiny objects, but not a dime of new spending, no assistance for the many, many students who need it to graduate or to be able to afford any kind of higher education, and no mention of how any of those standards or accountability measures can be achieved at current – or, hopefully for Abbott, lower – funding levels. Everyone just needs to work smarter, that’s all that it takes. Davis’ press release with the full outline of her plan, and a release from Battleground Texas about her plan, are beneath the fold, and BOR has more.

UPDATE: This DMN story from day two of Davis’ release touches on paying for her proposals.

Wendy Davis acknowledged Wednesday that her proposals to improve public schools will cost more money, but she said revenue is available if lawmakers will make education a priority and eliminate some corporate tax breaks.

“We need a governor who will lead the Legislature in a bipartisan way to find the smart ways to create that investment,” said Davis, the Democratic nominee, at an Austin news conference.

Davis said that because of Texas’ booming economy, budget writers next year are expected to have a $4 billion surplus and billions more in the state rainy day fund.

She said that existing revenue, coupled with “closing corporate tax loopholes that have been on the books in Texas for decades,” should provide lawmakers with the money needed to balance the budget and boost funding for education without new taxes.

Republican nominee Greg Abbott says his Democratic opponent would raise taxes if elected governor.

Asked what corporate tax breaks she would close, Davis’ campaign cited as an example property tax breaks for greenbelts used exclusively for recreation and parks, including private country clubs. Another tax break targeted by the Davis campaign is $111 million a year the state loses by rewarding large stores for paying their sales taxes on time.

Davis said she and Abbott offer “starkly different paths for our state” on investment in public schools.

It’s going to take more than that to fully fund all the things she’s talking about, but those items are a start, and they have the advantage of being good policy on their own. The story also reminds us that the state may soon be under a court order to find more money for education, so it sure would be nice if someone were thinking along these lines.

(more…)

Yes, Greg Abbott owns the RPT platform

Sorry, Greg. You can mumble all the vague platitudes you want, but this baby’s all yours.

You want to be the boss, you get to deal with boss problems

In the wake of the GOP’s approval of a platform that includes a hardline stance on immigration, Attorney General Greg Abbott finds himself at the top of the ticket for a party whose members are deeply divided over the subject and under fire from opponents who say the Republicans’ position is offensive to Hispanic Texans.

And it all comes during an election cycle in which Hispanic Texans are seen as an especially critical voting bloc that Abbott has worked to woo.

“It effectively puts him in an awkward position,” said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, because the attorney general does not want to risk alienating Hispanic voters or contradicting the official party stance.

Last week, the Republican party adopted a political platform that no longer endorses a provisional visa program for immigrants and calls for ending in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and for prohibiting “sanctuary cities” that do not enforce immigration laws.

Abbott has largely been silent on the issue. Representatives for the Abbott campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and they have not responded to previous inquiries about his position on the immigration plank of the platform.

The Chron has a similar story, though they did get a mealy-mouthed reply from the Abbott campaign.

Young conservatives. Gay Republicans. Hispanic GOPers. Take your pick – they are all fuming at the platform approved over the weekend by the Texas Republican Party.

With a return to a hard-line stance on immigration and a resounding endorsement of psychological therapy to cure gays of their homosexuality, Texas Republicans in a single stroke alienated a small but emerging faction of the party and handed Democrats a new set of talking points to wield against them in the midst of a heated election cycle.

It also has provoked fervent responses within the party.

Take state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican considered one of the leading Hispanic voices in the Texas House. He penned an open letter to delegates in Texas Monthly on Monday, saying they essentially “adopted a ‘deport them all’ strategy that compares human beings to foreign invaders.”

Jeff Davis, chairman of the Texas Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group, said Tuesday the platform will “haunt the party for the next two years.”

And Mark Brown, chairman emeritus of the Texas Young Republican Federation, which touts itself as the premier organization for conservative politicos under 40, called the party’s platform “quite abominable.”

“It’s divisive,” Brown said, adding that the party’s rejection of a plank supportive of medical marijuana also will hurt its image with young voters. “It will make it so much harder for some of us who want to grow this party to keep recruiting new members.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Wendy Davis’ campaign attempted to tie Attorney General Greg Abbott, the GOP nominee for governor, to the Republican platorm.

Zak Petkanas, a Davis spokesman, said the GOP took “their cues directly” from Abbott to craft the planks, imploring the attorney general to make his support for the platform clear.

But [RPT Chair Steve] Munisteri noted that statewide elected officials never embrace every tenet in the platform.

“I’ve yet to see a candidate say ‘I support 100 percent of the platform, otherwise we’d have people endorsing nonpasteurized milk,” he said. “It’s not the Greg Abbott platform. He has his own platform.”

Avdiel Huerta, the attorney general’s spokesman, agreed Tuesday.

“Greg Abbott has unveiled his own platform that focuses on jobs, education, roads, water and securing the border,” he said in a statement.

Let me digress for a moment to deal with the likes of Rep. Villalba, Messrs. Davis and Brown. If you really, truly don’t like the platform and really, truly think that it’s hurtful to people you want to reach out to, and you really, truly think it will harm the party’s long-term prospects, but then you go ahead and vote straight-ticket R anyway, you’re part of the problem. I don’t expect any of these three to publicly support a Democrat or oppose a Republican, but in their heart of hearts I think they know who on their ballot is most closely aligned with this platform (hint: his name rhymes with Pan Datrick, though he’s hardly the only one), and it would not be a betrayal of their principles to skip the race or races involving those candidates in November. It’s a secret ballot, fellas. No one will know, I promise. Otherwise, you own this platform just as much as Greg Abbott and the rest of the statewide slate does.

As for Abbott, I’ll stipulate that party platforms have since the beginning of time contained bits of effluvia, wishcasting, personal grievances, and other things that would not be universally supported. Even for the more mainstream things, candidates have the right to be all mavericky and distance themselves from whatever they personally do not buy into. Democrats are no strangers to any of that. The big difference, especially this year, is that the non-universal parts of Democratic platforms have always been either things that would never come up for serious consideration (like, sadly, single-payer healthcare) or that are on the horizon of becoming totally mainstream (like marriage equality was a couple of years ago). The RPT platform, on the other hand, is chock full of things that can and likely will get real hearings in the Legislature and barring shenanigans or heroic levels of lobbying may well pass. They’re not historical curiosities or back-bench saber rattling, they’re real live legislative priorities, shared by people that will be working and voting on actual for-real bills.

That’s why Greg Abbott doesn’t get to wave his hands and say we’re all our own people here and I’m not bound by what a bunch of yahoos in flag-themed clothing came up with. What happened in Fort Worth is going to come to the floor in Austin next year. If Greg Abbott wants to be Governor, it’s totally fair to know, unequivocally, what parts of that platform he supports and what parts he doesn’t. If a bill banning sanctuary cities comes to his desk, does he sign it or does he veto it? If the answer is “it depends”, what does it depend on? What’s acceptable and what isn’t? If a bill that repeals the Texas DREAM Act of 2001 comes before him, does he sign it or veto it? How about a bill that authorizes “reparative therapy” for LGBT teenagers in some form? What does he do with that? This isn’t a hypothetical situation. We all know that someone is going to file these bills, and we all know that if Dan Patrick is elected, he will do everything in his power to pass them out of the Senate. What will Greg Abbott do? He should be asked that question every day until he puts on his big boy underpants and answers it.

One more thing, from this Texas Public Radio story:

Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond said not having the support for a guest worker will leave huge gaps in the state economy and doesn’t only involve jobs in construction, agriculture or hospitality.

“In the Austin area alone, I’m told some 8,000 information technology jobs are left vacant because there’s not the workforce to fill those jobs,” Hammond said. “We could easily do that if we allowed more legal immigration through a guest worker program.”

Hammond said that the platform stance weakens the Texas economy and may have companies looking to relocate to Texas looking at other states that can support their needs.

“We’ve got many, many openings in Texas that could be filled by legal immigration by a guest worker program that would allow people to come and also go when the work was simply no there,” Hammond said.

Hammond said he agrees with Villalba that the removal of the party’s support for a guest worker program isn’t reflective of the entire Texas Republican Party, but is reflective of delegates at the party convention and some of those who are running in statewide elections in 2014.

Bill Hammond, I know you’re not stupid, and I know you’re not naive. We both know that the parts of the party platform that you find objectionable are also supported by large numbers of Republican legislators and legislators-elect. We know this because your organization has given or will give money to many of them. You and your toothless talk about immigration have been a big part of the problem for a long time because it has never been accompanied by any real action. Either work to defeat – or at the very least, publicly refuse to support – the politicians that are pushing the things you say you oppose, or shut up about it.

Transportation funding shouldn’t be intractable

As previously noted, Sens. Tommy Williams and Robert Nichols want to take another crack at finding additional funds for transportation. The problem, as always, is political

“Sooner or later, serious policy-makers have to take control,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month. “I think they will, but I don’t know when.”

The latest, best hope is a bill filed Tuesday by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would take excess oil production tax revenues and direct them at paying down the state’s road bond debt.

Williams estimated that could mean an additional $700 to $800 million annually for transportation.

[…]

To fund existing repair and improvement needs, the Texas Department of Transportation has estimated it needs an additional $4 billion for the two-year budget cycle.

“Major transportation funding is one of the things that, unfortunately, did not happen during the regular session,” Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, said. “Without these new projects we risk our economic edge in attracting new investment, jobs and business to this state.”

The state gasoline tax has remained unchanged at 20 cents for 22 years. Lawmakers came to Austin with some funding ideas, from tax increases to higher vehicle registration fees. None gained enough traction to overcome ideological opposition to anything that took money from Texans and gave it to the government.

I presume that last sentence is intended to capture the perspective of the rabid anti-spending crowd, but it’s so jarring that I can’t help but marvel at it. Would anyone characterize a visit to the grocery store as “taking money from Texans and giving it to Charles Butt and Randall Onstead”? If the need to pay for roads and road repair is that disconnected from the gas tax, then I don’t even know what to say. It is always amusing to see another helpless quote from Bill Hammond, as if he were an innocent victim of this breakdown in policy instead of an enabler of it. It’s the same dynamic as the anti-immigrant hysteria of the past couple of sessions that finally got tamped down this year after the politics of it became too untenable for the Republicans. It’s well within Bill Hammond’s power to support candidates in Republican primaries that will work to actually solve these problems, and to oppose the candidates that actively work against solving them. I’d be happy to suggest a few legislators to target in 2014 if that would be helpful to Hammond. This isn’t rocket science.

“I think we all know something is going to give,” said Carol Brace, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy at UH. “But I feel for them. They are struggling just as we all are to figure it out.”

Emmett said the biggest challenge is overcoming a segment of lawmakers who recognize the need for transportation spending, but oppose any proposal to raise the money. Part of their reluctance, he said, is fear they will get hammered in the next election for raising taxes or fees.

Well, I don’t feel for them, because even the Republicans that are trying to solve this problem in the Legislature have helped to make it so difficult to do by their own anti-tax and anti-spending rhetoric over the years. If we’d been properly maintaining the gas tax all this time and were coming to a point diminishing returns and were now engaged in a debate about how to transition from the gas tax to something that would be more sustainable for growth in the long term, that would be one thing. But everyone knows that the gas tax is still viable, and would largely take care of our transportation needs for years to come if we dealt with it. Hammond, for all his feigned cluelessness, put his finger right on the message to overcome this quagmire, that opposing any and all new revenues to fix the state’s transportation problems – and yes, this includes raising the gas tax and indexing it to the cost of construction – is anti-business. No one wants to be accused of that in a Republican primary. The Republicans created this dilemma for themselves, they can fix it for themselves.

Senate passes amended HB5

The Senate has passed its version of House Bill 5, which makes sweeping changes to standardized testing and curriculum requirements for high school students.

Texas high school students would have new curriculum requirements under legislation unanimously passed by the Senate on Monday — but they won’t be the ones the House envisioned when it approved its version of the legislation more than a month ago.

The Senate version of House Bill 5, which the upper chamber reached consensus on after weeks of extensive negotiations that continued through Monday afternoon, still drops the number of required state exams for graduation from 15 to five in biology, U.S. history, algebra I, and English I and II. It would still allow students to complete diplomas in specialized areas or “endorsements,” like humanities, science and technology, and business and industry.

But it changes the courses that students must complete to graduate under those endorsements, most significantly requiring four years of math for all of them.

The legislation now goes to conference committee, where representatives from both chambers will meet to work out their differences.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said HB 5 provided the structure for “the most rigorous, most flexible” high school graduation plan in the country. He also emphasized the legislation’s commitment to reducing high-stakes testing, which he said had taken the “fun out of teaching.”

Many Senate Democrats, along with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, favored preserving the current “4×4” curriculum — which includes four years each in science, social studies, English and math — but adding more options for career skills and advanced math courses. Patrick pushed to keep the plan passed out of his committee, which has four years of English but drops to three years of science, math and social studies in certain endorsements to give students chances to take specialized courses.

The proposal that emerged from Senate negotiations, which Patrick called the “flex 4×4,” puts all students on track to completing four years of math and English, with algebra II as a requirement for all endorsements except the business and industry track. The advanced math course, which some education researchers say increases students’ chances at post-secondary success, would be required for automatic admission to state colleges under the top 10 percent rule and to apply for certain state scholarships.

Under the House version, students would opt into a college preparatory curriculum with the additional years of math, science and social studies. That plan has encountered criticism from groups like the Texas Association of Business, La Raza and the Education Trust, who believe it would reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for post-secondary education and result in fewer low-income and minority students heading to college.

Here’s HB5, and here’s what I wrote about the House passage of it. The main points of contention were about the algebra II requirement and whether the default endorsement was the most rigorous one or not – in other words, whether a student had to opt in or opt out. The person pushing the opt out path was Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and the Observer reports on her activities.

Under an amendment tacked on by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), students on the foundation plan must complete four years of science and four years of math with Algebra II to qualify for automatic admissions to state universities under the Top Ten Percent Rule.

That means some students who graduate with the career endorsement may not qualify for automatic admissions, depending on which math classes they choose. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who led Friday’s negotiations, introduced an amendment that would have required Algebra II for all students.

“I tell ya, I find it quite insulting,” Van de Putte said of people who insinuate that some students just can’t succeed in Algebra II, which is considered a college-ready indicator.

Van de Putte said her amendment would reduce the possibility of reverting to an old system that tended to steer minority students into career and technology fields instead of college—a concern that prompted groups like the National Council of La Raza to agitate against the bill. Van de Putte said today’s system already funnels minority students into the lower degree plan.

“I want to make sure with this amendment that we’re not failing our kids because we’re so afraid with failing ourselves,” Van de Putte said.

However, Van de Putte ultimately withdrew her amendment so lawmakers could discuss her idea in conference committee.

In a statement after the bill passed, she explained her lingering concerns with a graduation path that isn’t built for college readiness. ”I worry that some ninth-graders, especially from families without a history of higher education, won’t realize what they can achieve. I fear that choosing the minimum plan will lead to a minimum wage job,” she said.

Van de Putte also tried, unsuccessfully, to require multiple notifications to students reminding them that choosing the career endorsement may disqualify them from automatic college admissions. “If we’re going to let 15-year-olds decide what their endorsements are, we need to let them be fully informed,” Van de Putte said.

Several legislators from both parties said one notice would be enough, and Patrick raised his voice saying that he didn’t want blue collar work to be stigmatized.

Among Van de Putte’s successful amendments was an option for school districts to offer a seal of bi-literacy on qualifying students’ diplomas, and another protecting dropout recovery schools from being penalized for low test scores.

The Texas Association of Business, which continues to veer between being a force for good and a petulant bully, continues to be unhappy with the thrust of this legislation.

Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond criticized the Senate bill, saying the weaker requirements will “doom generations of students to a mediocre education and low-wage jobs.”

He noted that only about 25 percent of Texas high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

The requirements are “meant to increase that number and put in place [higher] standards,” he said.

The bill now goes to conference committee to get the differences worked out. I doubt what emerges will be any more to Bill Hammond’s liking than the Senate version is now, but perhaps the final bill will resemble the Senate version more than the House version. It’s mostly been parent groups like TAMSA that have pushed for limits on end of course exams, and they have proven to be a fairly loud voice in this process as well. I’m really not sure what to make of all of this. I do think we test too much, but I also think algebra II should be taught, and I’m a little concerned about weakening curriculum requirements. I have a hard time sorting out all the data on this. If there’s one thing I am sure of it’s that we will revisit this subject again in 2015, and probably 2017 and 2019 and who knows how many future sessions. I don’t think this will ever be anything but a work in progress.

Water, water, not so fast

So much for that.

A major bill on the top of Gov. Rick Perry’s priority list that would authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the Texas House on Monday night after a contentious debate over where to pull the money from.

“My understanding is it’s doorknob dead,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said after debate on the measure, which was backed by Speaker Joe Straus, was halted over a legislative technicality.

[…]

Ritter’s bill, House Bill 11, would have taken $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a multi-billion dollar reserve of mostly oil and gas taxes — and spent it on water-supply projects, in an effort to help the state withstand future droughts.

Another Ritter bill the House passed earlier this month, House Bill 4, would create a special fund to administer the money.

But HB 11’s backers faced an uphill battle to get enough votes, because drawing from the Rainy Day Fund requires a higher bar — 100 votes rather than the usual 76 votes — to pass.

Democrats’ objections were grounded in the argument that if the Rainy Day Fund gets used for water, it should also be raided for other purposes like public education. Some far-right conservatives, meanwhile, worried about drawing at all from the Rainy Day Fund, which they say should be reserved for emergencies.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, ultimately avoided a vote on HB 11 by raising a point of order, a legislative term for a procedural problem with the bill. Ritter said the bill in its current form is now dead; Perry has previously threatened to call a special session if lawmakers cannot find a way to fund water projects.

If lawmakers do not provide the funding, “I think we’re back in special session, but that’s above my paygrade,” Ritter said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has already passed a measure to move $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund into public education and water and transportation projects.

The House had previously passed a bill to create the fund, which the Senate has now also passed, but this was the bill to actually put money in the fund. The Senate also voted to tap the Rainy Day Fund for this and other purposes, but the House was the heavier lift. Bipartisan support was required, which meant as Burka noted that the House Democrats had leverage. He thinks they overplayed their hand, but the reason their support was so badly needed was because of ideological fractures on the GOP side.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to several of the state’s political leaders including Perry, announced Sunday it was opposed to the bill.

“The 83rd Texas Legislature has on hand more than $8 billion in new general revenue to pay for increased spending in areas like Medicaid, roads, water and education,” foundation president Brooke Rollins said. “But instead of setting priorities to make the new spending fit within available revenue, the Legislature appears ready to spend far more than this.”

In an unusual disagreement with the group, Perry made the case for a big one-time withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects in his op-ed. The governor, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, has made economic development his signature issue. And if water gets tight, he said businesses relocations to Texas would dry up.

“The good news is that current economic conditions and available balances in the Rainy Day Fund provide a unique opportunity for the state to partner with communities by offering financing to develop and implement new water supplies,” Perry wrote in support of a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the fund.

Asked about the split among conservatives, Rich Parsons, the governor’s spokesman, said: “We have infrastructure needs in the state that need to be met.” He added: “I think Texans recognize the need for action and expect state leaders to take action, and that’s precisely what the governor is doing.”

Hammond, of the Texas Association of Business, said Monday in support of HB 11: “I think the business community is pretty much united. … It’s necessary [because] unless we do something more than what we’re doing now, in 50 years demand will be up by about 22 percent and supply will be down by about 10 percent. That’s a disaster.”

“It’s already being used against us,” Hammond said, “that Texas is in a drought and they’re not doing anything about it.”

When Rick Perry and Bill Hammond are on the pragmatic, get-stuff-done side, you know how far off into the weeds the enforcers of “conservative” purity have gone. They opposed using the Rainy Day Fund because they oppose spending money – the purpose for the spending and the need it addresses don’t matter. Too many Republican legislators in the thrall of these hegemons, and this is the result.

So now what happens?

Even with the collapse of Ritter’s bill, there are other options. The Senate, which would rather put the politically difficult question before voters, has approved a resolution calling for constitutional amendments that would make available nearly $6 billion from the rainy day fund for transportation and water projects, as well as education.

Another possibility may be House Bill 19 by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. The bill would draw $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for water and transportation projects.

“This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain,” Perry said after the demise of HB 11. “I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”

A special session is a possibility, since Perry has identified the water infrastructure fund as one of his top priorities. Also possible is the for the House budget negotiators to rip up everything they’ve done so far and appropriate the money from general revenue, which is what the slash-and-burn crowd is advocating. That would of course means however much money would then need to be taken away from everything else in the budget, which I don’t think the Senate will go along with. Some other bill may come to the rescue – where there’s a sufficiently broad caption, there’s a way. I think this is more likely to be a temporary setback than a “doornail dead” situation, but we’ll see. PDiddie, EoW, the Observer, and the TSTA have more.

Weekend legislative threefer

That sound you heard on Friday was Rick Perry stamping his feet if he doesn’t get his way.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

I can eat these all summer if I have to

Gov. Rick Perry is warning state legislators that it could be a long, hot summer in Austin if they don’t pass his top priorities: funding water and transportation projects and cutting business taxes.

With a month left in the regular session, Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said Friday that the governor is prepared to bring lawmakers back in special session if they don’t act on his signature issues.

“The governor laid out his priorities in January to ensure a strong economy for the next 50 years, including instituting fiscally sound budget principles, significant tax cuts and making sure Texas has the necessary roads and water infrastructure to support our growing state,” she said. “His priorities haven’t changed.”

Castle said the Legislature still has plenty of time to act before the clock runs out on the 83rd Texas Legislature next month. But she said Perry won’t stand for incomplete work on his top items.

“He’s been very clear that he won’t sign the budget until he signs significant tax relief,” she said. “And if they don’t address all of these priorities by the end of the session, the governor is willing to keep them here as long as it takes to get it done.”

Whatever. Perry is very likely to get the first two items on his wish list regardless of any threats. His ridiculous tax cut, I hope not. I note that story came out the same day as this one about legislative Republicans pushing back against Perry this session. Not a coincidence, I daresay, but we’ll see whether that attitude survives Perry’s meetup with the GOP caucus.

Meanwhile, the House approved a supplemental budget that included more money for public education.

Debate over a routine budget bill in the Texas House became unusually topical Friday as lawmakers touched on a fertilizer plant explosion in West, the murder of two Kaufman County prosecutors and the Travis County district attorney’s drunken driving arrest.

Lawmakers ultimately voted 129-9 in favor of House Bill 1025, which would add $874.9 million to the state’s current two-year budget. The bill includes $500 million more for public schools and more than $170 million in payments to state and local agencies to cover costs related to wildfires in 2011.

Lawmakers filed 20 amendments to the bill ahead of Friday. Nearly all of them were eventually withdrawn or rejected by the House. Members agreed to an amendment by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, that allows the governor’s office to “prioritize” the use of $2 million for recovery efforts after this month’s disaster in West. Kacal’s district includes the town of West.

One of the amendments that was subsequently withdrawn came from Rep. Phil King, who is trying to force Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. He attempted to use the process to move the Public Integrity Unit from Lehmberg’s office to that of the Attorney General, but did not succeed. I wouldn’t put it past him to try again later, however. In any event, the best thing to come out of this debate was the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the slash-and-burn crowd.

Finally, the Texas Association of Business has endorsed the Zerwas plan for Medicaid “expansion”.

“If we can take the money on our terms and conditions then it is something we ought to do,” said Bill Hammond, president of the group, whose board voted in January to oppose expanding Medicaid as called for under the federal Affordable Care Act. The basis of Zerwas’ plan is to negotiate a deal that allows the state to use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to subsidize private coverage, which Hammond said is a workable solution. “We encourage them to march to Washington to try to cut a deal,” he said.

House Bill 3791, authored by Zerwas, R-Simonton, has four parts: It outlines what the state’s request for a federal block grant to reform the current Medicaid program could look like; identifies Medicaid reforms that Texas could implement already, such as cost-sharing requirements and co-payments; sets up a separate program to potentially draw down federal financing to help individuals at or below 133 percent of the poverty level find private market coverage; and sets up an oversight committee for both programs.

“This is not an expansion of Medicaid — this is the creation of a new program that leverages our private sector,” Zerwas told the House Appropriations Committee, which voted 15 to 9 on Tuesday to move the legislation out of committee and continue debate on the House floor.

Like I said, I’m lukewarm on the idea, but it is the best we could get at this time. Lord, we need a new government in this state.

Senate to consider expanded gambling

I didn’t really take it seriously when I heard that Sen. John Carona had filed his own gambling expansion legislation, but it seems it’s got some traction.

Sen. John Carona

A proposal from Dallas Republican Sen. John Carona would establish a commission that licenses 21 casinos throughout the state, including three mega-resorts in Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties and two smaller locations at Retama Park in San Antonio and Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce committee, told reporters Monday the proposal would keep the estimated $3 billion Texans are spending at casinos in bordering states inside state coffers while creating more than 75,000 jobs. The committee, which will consider the measure Wednesday, is likely to pass the proposal on to the full Senate, he said.

“No one can really determine yet what chance of ultimate passage it has this session,” Carona said in an interview in his Capitol office, noting his vote tally indicates both chambers are a few votes shy of approval. “It is a difficult bill because of the presumed political consequences of it, but the polls show there is overwhelming public support.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has supported similar measures in the past, said the chances of gambling passing the Legislature this session are “slim-to-none.”

However, Pitts said the final decision on the state’s school finance trial could provide a boost for gambling in Texas. If the current ruling – that the state’s public education funding is inadequate and unconstitutional – stands, lawmakers will be searching for a new source of revenue that does not create a new tax, he said.

[…]

Under Carona’s proposal, three casinos would be licensed in coastal counties, 12 would be reserved for racetracks and three would be designated for federally recognized Native American tribes.

The majority of revenue generated – 85 percent – would be dedicated to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which supports local programs, such as public education and emergency services. Remaining revenue would belong to city and county governments and fund programs to counter gambling problems. The constitutional amendment must gain two-thirds support of the House and Senate before moving on to voters in a statewide referendum.

Sen. Carona’s measure is SJR 64. If you’ll pardon the expression, the smart money is on nothing happening, as has always been the case before. The Trib goes into some more detail.

[Carona has] been working on casino legislation for the last few sessions, but his plan this year is much more comprehensive. In the past, gaming bills have either had the support of casinos or race tracks. But not both.

That split support had doomed the efforts. This time, Carona said, both groups are on board.

“Let me make clear that this legislation has very broad support,” he said. “While not all stakeholder concerns are resolved in this bill, we have come a long way. And it is my hope that we’ll continue to work together to bring forward a bill that is best for Texas.”

The senator said his legislation is still fluid — many changes could be made. So for now, there’s no price tag on how much money casino gambling would generate. But billions are expected from the three giant destination resort casinos and 18 other facilities that would be authorized under his resolution.

[…]

But hey, if you want to pass something in the Legislature, you need to do one of two things: Show what problem the legislation would fix or, as casino supporters did this week, show an enemy that would be defeated by this bill. And according to casino supporters, we have met the enemy — and it is Oklahoma.

“In particular, we’re hemorrhaging money to Oklahoma,” said John Montford of Let Texans Decide. “Not only do they recruit our best high school football players. They also snooker us each day by building their gaming empire on the backs of Texans.”

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond was even less diplomatic when explaining what he sees as the benefits of casinos in Texas.

“Texans will no longer have to travel to third-world countries in order to game,” Hammond joked. “It’s unfair and unconscionable that we are making these people travel to these third-world counties that surround Texas.”

The state’s hatred of Oklahoma aside, there are still several roadblocks to casinos in Texas. Carona’s resolution needs a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate before it heads to the ballot as a constitutional amendment this November.

And on the Senate side, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has a history of threatening a filibuster over gaming legislation. As debates have neared in the past, she has even put tennis shoes on her desk on the Senate floor to let people know she’s ready to go if needed.

And, of course, if a resolution passes the House and Senate, then there’s the final statewide vote — a vote that will certainly include groups opposing casinos on moral grounds along with some backed by those neighboring states’ casinos that don’t want to lose business.

The 100-vote threshhold in the House is pretty daunting. Speaker Joe Straus will not be an ally, since he stays away from gambling bills to avoid talk about conflicts of interest, and there’s likely to be enough social conservative opposition to make it at best a close call. Still, even getting a bill out of committee in the Senate is farther than the gambling expansion forces have gone in the past. If Carona’s bill can actually make it to the floor in both chambers, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Here come the tax cut proposals

When the sunny revenue forecast came in, we immediately got one crappy tax cut idea, to eliminate the margins tax at a cost of $4.5 billion. The Texas Association of Business didn’t care for the idea, at least at first, but are now warming up to it, because this is what they do.

For Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, it’s a simple formula: Keep taxes low and the Texas economic engine keeps on chugging. Hammond says making permanent the business tax exemption for companies that bring in less than $1 million in gross receipts would fuel the economy, as would allowing those making more than that to exempt their first $1 million.

“Currently if you do $900,000 in receipts, you pay no tax,” Hammond said. “If you have $1.1 million in receipts you pay tax on the entire amount.”

With a million-dollar exemption, the latter company would pay taxes on just $100,000.

Hammond also wants to lower the franchise tax rate by a quarter of a percent. And lest consumers feel left out, the proposal includes a sales tax exemption for college textbooks.

[…]

Hammond’s proposals would cost the state more than $4 billion, money he says should be off limits to lawmakers, because spending it would put the state over a constitutional cap on state budget growth.

“Unless there’s a vote of two-thirds of both bodies to bust the constitutional cap, that money will either be sitting in the treasury forever maybe, or, as we believe, it should be returned to the taxpayers,” he said.

But Hammond’s numbers don’t exactly add up. The $4 billion would be off limits based on the current size of the 2012-13 budget. But lawmakers are expected to add about $7 billion to that budget in a supplemental appropriation early this spring. That would increase the cap for the new budget and erase that $4 billion overage.

Hammond calls his proposal a starting point and expects more tax cut ideas in coming weeks.

Well, the margins tax was born on fuzzy math, so it would be somehow poetic if its demise began with more fuzzy math. The Statesman has more:

Hammond said the rate cut proposed by TAB could be the the first step in phasing out the franchise tax.

Until the latest revenue forecasts, Hammond had said he doubted the state would have the revenue to phase out a franchise tax that has accounted for about 10 percent of all state tax revenue. But he said Texas Comptroller Susan Combs’ forecast for the next two years changed his mind.

“We needed to see how much money was available,” Hammond said. “There’s money to fund some or all of it.”

Dick Lavine with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income families, disagrees.

Lavine said state funding for education is $500 per student less than before the 2011 cuts. He also noted Texas’ needs for water and transportation infrastructure.

Although the Legislature is expected to be even more conservative this year than in 2011, Lavine said he’s begun talking to GOP lawmakers and they aren’t in lock step for tax cuts.

“Not all of them are enthusiastic about tax cuts because they realize the state has higher priorities,” Lavine said.

Priorities, remember those? You know, like water and transportation and Medicaid and weaning the budget off of accounting tricks and paying off all those bills the Lege deferred from 2011. Those things. Oh, yeah, and public education, which the Lege won’t address this session beyond maybe funding enrollment growth but which Lt. Gov. Dewhurst wants to set some money aside in anticipation of a court ruling that more must be spent. This is why if you think in terms of what Texas actually needs, we’re falling well short of what we should be spending. Even without that, it’s hard to see where the room for a multi-billion dollar extravagance like this comes from. You can pay for the things Texas needs, or you can throw a bunch of money down the tax cut drain. You can’t do both.

And as a reminder, it’s not just the big ticket items that are clamoring for their fair share of the pie, it’s the smaller line items, too.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would close seven state parks during the 2014-2015 biennium under preliminary budget proposals from the House and Senate, and at least one group is ready to fight to keep them open.

In discussions before the legislative session began, the parks and wildlife department requested that the Legislative Budget Board allocate an additional $18.9 million from the sporting goods sales tax to keep all parks operational. The preliminary House and Senate budgets, released Tuesday, call for only an additional $6.9 million over the next biennium from that tax.

Ian Davis, the directof of Keep Texas Parks Open, said parks improve Texans’ quality of life and stimulate local economies, especially in smaller counties. His organization will hold town hall meetings around the state and organize Texans online to advocate for additional funds so the department can keep all its parks open.

“We are trying to mobilize people across the state so they understand that it could be their park that closes,” Davis said.

Here’s their Facebook page if the idea of not spending less than 0.1% of the revenue we have to keep Texas’ parks open offends you. We have a choice to make. We really ought to try to make a good one.

TAB yields on testing

Retreat!

Some of the strongest advocates for high-stakes testing, Texas business leaders now want to cut the number of exams students must pass to finish high school, the latest attempt to ease tougher graduation requirements that went into effect last year.

The number of high-stakes tests would fall from 15 to as few as six under the business groups’ plan, and school districts would not have to count the exam scores as part of students’ course grades.

Bill Hammond, who leads the Texas Association of Business, on Wednesday acknowledged that the law mandating the increased testing “quite honestly overdid it a little bit.”

His comments echo concerns that educators and parents have been taking to state lawmakers in recent months. Scores on the first round of tests last spring showed thousands of students were below grade level and were at risk of not graduating.

The business groups’ plan likely will serve as a conversation starter for state lawmakers when they reconvene in January. Education Commissioner Michael Williams, at the urging at Gov. Rick Perry, already has suspended the law requiring exam scores to count in students’ grades.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of debate on all these topics before any decision is reached,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

The first crack in the wall appeared last week, when Sen. Dan Patrick submitted a bill to give local districts more control over how STAAR results factored into students’ grades, followed by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams suspending the 15% requirement for this year. At the time I noted that we hadn’t heard from TAB about this. Now we know why. Here’s more from the Trib.

Calling their plans a constructive response to widespread criticism of the state’s new student assessments, leaders from the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Institute for Education Reform and the Texas Business Leadership Council recommended letting local school districts determine how end-of-course exams factored into students’ final grades, reducing the number of exams they must pass to graduate and providing different ways to earn a high school diploma.

Despite its high-profile backers, the proposal does not have the full support of the business community. Missing from Wednesday’s conference was the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Senior Vice President Drew Scheberle said the new proposal reduces the already low expectations students must meet to get high school diplomas — something he said would threaten their ability to compete for top-quality jobs.

“It’s trying to solve the wrong problem,” he said. “The problem I’m hearing from parents is too many tests, poor communication, not enough flexibility in courses. You can solve those problems and not sacrifice preparing kids for college and career.”

The leaders present Wednesday acknowledged the announcement represented a change from the position they took at a news conference six months ago, when they emphasized their opposition to any changes to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said then that they would “vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system” until they were certain that the current accountability system would be maintained. During the last legislative session, an attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, to make some of the changes now supported by the three groups failed in the Senate with the opposition of the business community.

But on Wednesday they laid out a plan that Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham said was the result of a six-month-long “listening tour” across the state where they heard the concerns of educators, business leaders and elected officials.

But not the concerns of parents, apparently. It’s not clear to me if TAB intends to release its hostage – as recently as last month they vowed not to – or if that is contingent on them having final approval over whatever replacement system gets adopted. For now, at least, they have stepped away from the brink.

Some sanity on STAAR

This is a welcome development.

A requirement that the state exams count toward 15 percent of a student’s course grade sparked a backlash last spring over the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, among parents whose ninth-graders were the first to take the more rigorous exams. A statewide parent group emerged out of the controversy and is calling for major changes to the testing system.

In a nod to the influence of the parents, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, unveiled legislation that would strike the mandate and allow school districts to decide how much a student’s end-of-course test score should figure into the final grade.

High school students must take 15 end-of-course exams to graduate, and parents feared that including the test scores in the course grade might affect a student’s grade-point average and, in turn, college admissions.

“This is about local control. The school districts, and the parents, should have a voice on whether the end-of-course exams should count towards a student’s final grade,” said Patrick, who plans to propose other modifications to STAAR in coming weeks.

“Local control” is one of those concepts that Republicans tend to invoke when it’s convenient and ignore when it’s not. It’s being used in service of something sensible here, so I’m not complaining, just noting the flexibility. The initial results from the STAAR test were not encouraging, and there has been considerable pushback from parents and school administrators over it. This is a breakthrough for them, but the fight is far from over.

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped form the parent group, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, welcomed Patrick’s willingness to take the lead on an issue that had worried so many parents.

But she added that it wouldn’t quell the parents’ concerns over the testing system. They want legislators to reduce the number of tests that must be taken to graduate and modify the complicated method for determining if a student is on track for graduation.

“The 15 percent issue awoke us to a system that is bad for kids,” Majcher said. “Changing the 15 percent requirement is only a start. Thus, while this is an important step in the right direction, there are still significant revisions that must be made. Simply addressing the 15 percent is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a major hemorrhage.”

Business leaders that have been the most vocal proponents of the 15 percent provision were resigned Thursday to the about-face by lawmakers.

Bill “Hostage Taker” Hammond wasn’t quoted in this story, so I would not be too sure about business leaders taking this lying down. If Hammond throws a hissy fit over this, it will set up an interesting dynamic for the session, since he’ll be in opposition not just to Sen. Patrick but also to Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and now Texas Education Agency head Michael williams, who has agreed to defer the 15% rule for now.

As I said, this fight is far from over. One vocal critic of Texas’ high-stakes testing regime is SBOE member Thomas Ratliff, and he has plenty to say on the subject.

Is the test really the problem? Personally, I don’t think so. Testing is a form of accountability and measurement. It’s always been a part of an education and it always will be. Despite what the Texas Association of Business wants you to believe, parents ARE NOT against testing or accountability. What parents ARE against are the stakes riding on the outcome of those tests and the fact that those tests are currently the only way a student, teacher, campus or district is deemed to be a success or failure in the eyes of the Legislature, the TEA and the public.

What’s the solution to this situation?

As you might expect, I have a few ideas.

1) We need the Legislature to repeal the 15% grade requirement. Simple enough.

2) We need the SBOE to start reducing the length of the TEKS as they come back up for renewal. TEKS are supposed to stand for the Texas ESSENTIAL Knowledge and Skills. They go well beyond what’s essential in my opinion.

3) We need an accountability system that contains elements that have nothing to do with the standardized test. Graduation rates, UIL participation, National Merit Scholars, CTE participation, service hours, dual credit enrollment are just a few suggestions. We also need to stop grading campuses and districts on their lowest performing sub-group. I know Commissioner Williams and the TEA are working on this and they are headed in the right direction. I just hope they go far enough to make meaningful change.

4) We simply have too many state-mandated tests. Massachusetts, which is supposedly the envy of all public schools systems in the United States, has 3 state-mandated standardized tests. Finland, which is supposedly the envy of all public school systems in the world, has one. That’s right, one. This reminds me of an old saying, “The cow doesn’t get heavier just because you weigh it more.”

So, I’d like to conclude with another farming analogy. It’s time to put the high-stakes testing regime out to pasture.

The Statesman story notes that Rep. Dan Huberty filed a bill to eliminate the 15% requirement altogether. I don’t expect that to pass, but it’s out there. I’m also reminded of one of Scott Hochberg’s proposals from last session to exempt students who did well on the STAAR in one year from taking them the next since they’re statistically almost certain to pass. If nothing else, that could be a good compromise. We’ll see how it goes.

Fee for all

Fees are part of the answer for Texas’ pressing infrastructure needs, but they aren’t and cannot be the whole solution.

To help keep the Texas business climate robust, lawmakers should double state fees on motor vehicle registrations and impose a new fee on every water meter in the state, the state’s largest business lobbying group said Thursday.

Economic development competitors are using Texas’ lack of investment in water resources and roads against it, and the fees could help the state address those issues, Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, told a special committee of lawmakers and business leaders.

Other states are telling companies, “Don’t go to Texas. They’re not investing in infrastructure,” Hammond told the Select Committee on Economic Development. The committee is studying how to encourage continued business development.

[…]

The business group is suggesting a $1.50 monthly fee on every water meter as well as every irrigation well in a water conservation district. Hammond estimated that the fee would raise $150 million a year to encourage local governments to develop new water resources.

Likewise, Hammond said, increasing the motor registration fee would raise more than $1 billion a year for highway construction. That money, according to the Texas Association of Business report, could be leveraged into $14 billion to $16 billion in bonds for new roads.

Most motorists now pay $50.75 per vehicle to the state and another $5 to $11.50 in local fees.

Hammond said, “The business community feels so strongly, we are willing to offer a specific solution.”

That solution, however, has critics.

Dick Lavine, a fiscal analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said he agrees that the state needs to invest more in transportation, water and education. But he disagrees with using fees that hit well-off people the same as the poor people.

“They pretend that everyone has the same ability to pay,” Lavine said. “We’d like something so those who can afford more, pay more.”

Hammond countered there is little appetite in the Legislature for raising taxes.

Usually when there is a pressing need for something that isn’t popular, functional societies rely on something called “leadership” to make it happen. You know, the whole “doing the right thing” thing. Regressive though they may be, I don’t have any abiding objections to these fees, but let’s get real: Neither will raise nearly enough money to solve the problems. Raising the gas tax is still the best option, and if done right could just about wipe out the transportation funding deficit. The water issue is somewhat more intractable, but hey, that’s what we elected these people to figure out. It’s on them to get it done, and it’s on them if they don’t.

TAB does not intend to release its hostage

And why should they, if it’s a viable strategy?

Representatives from the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, which includes major business groups and local chambers of commerce, said at a news conference that the assessment and accountability system known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness cannot be rolled back.

Too many students are leaving Texas public schools ill-prepared for college or a “high-performance” job, said Mike Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, who pointed to the 42 percent of students at Austin Community College who needed remedial classes.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said efforts to dilute the high-stakes system is the wrong move for the state’s businesses and the public school students who go to work for those businesses.

“We send kids to (community college) telling them that they’re ready to go, and they walk in the door and they find out the next day that they’re not and they’re going to have to take these god-awful remedial courses and they have to pay for them and they don’t get credit,” Hammond said. “That’s not fair to them.”

The coalition said 80 percent of Texas students should graduate ready for college or a career without remedial classes. In the first round of the new testing system last spring, only 3 percent of students met that standard on the end-of-course writing exam.

The coalition is open to some minor modifications, such as reducing how much the end-of-course test matters in a student’s final grade. Current law says the score should count as 15 percent, which was the primary source of consternation among the parents last spring.

Dineen Majcher, who is part of the parent group, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, said the business leaders’ hard-line position is unrealistic.

“There are parents all over the state that understand that the system is broken,” Majcher said. “It is imprudent to completely ignore that.”

Well, the way to make TAB and Bill Hammond understand that is to elect enough candidates that support your position and oppose theirs to force them to the negotiating table. As long as they think they’ve got enough legislators under their sway, they don’t need to care what anyone else thinks. These are the stakes today, I hope everyone was paying attention. See here, here, and here for more.

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

Pauken responds to Hammond

Tom Pauken responds to Bill Hammond on the subject of school accountability.

Hammond encourages us to “stay the course” of the existing high-stakes testing system and “4×4” curriculum that have come to dominate public education in Texas. Implicit in this expensive testing system (the cost to Texas taxpayers is an estimated $450 million over a five-year period) and the 4×4 curriculum is the idea that everyone should be prepared to go to a four-year university. I call it the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education, which doesn’t acknowledge that students have different talents and interests. The current system clearly isn’t working all that well to prepare students to be “college ready.” And it is doing a particularly poor job for those students who would benefit from a greater emphasis on career and technical education at the high school level.

So why should we “stay the course” of an overly prescriptive curriculum and a high-stakes testing system that haven’t delivered on its promises since they were first put in place in the mid-1990s? Rather than acknowledging that this state-mandated system isn’t working, the response from the defenders of the status quo is to roll out a new test, make a few changes to the accountability system and promise everything will be better if we just give it a chance to work. That’s what they said when TAAS became TAKS, and that’s what they are saying now that TAKS is becoming STAAR.

What can we do to inject some common sense into the discussion on education policy? We need multiple pathways to a high school diploma — pathways that reflect student goals. Every student should get the basics. Then, for those students wanting to go on to a university, there would be a college preparatory curriculum with emphasis on math and science, or one that focuses on humanities and the fine arts. There would be a career-oriented curriculum for students so inclined which would prepare them with an industry-certified license or credential by the time they graduate from high school.

I fully support holding schools accountable. But the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students; rather, it makes them beholden to performance on a single test. Success and accountability can be measured in a variety of ways.

Pauken’s piece is a response to one that Hammond wrote, which may or may not have been in response to a column by Patti Hart, which continues a debate that flared up after Hammond and the Texas Association of Business threatened to take school finance hostage if they didn’t get their way. As I’ve said before, I agree with Pauken, and I’m not really sure why this is even controversial. But apparently this is how we do things these days.

Hammond pushes back on Pauken

After I read Patti Hart’s column about Tom Pauken and his anti-standardized testing quest, I noted the absence of a mention of uber-testing advocate Bill Hammond. Hammond has no trouble talking about Pauken, however.

Tom Pauken, former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, said in The Texas Tribune that he wants to change the state’s new accountability system because somehow that will help youngsters get technical jobs. He is wrong.

We do indeed need to get more youngsters ready for all sorts of jobs, including those in technical and manufacturing fields. But it is the old system that has failed to prepare students for both college and career. That is why we passed House Bill 3, legislation that has led to standards, testing and accountability that align perfectly with getting young people ready for the full spectrum of good jobs and opportunity. Give the change a chance to work, please!

Readers of the Tribune also have seen the views of a professor who opposes accountability. Based upon opinions with no grounding in peer review or published research, Walter Stroup attacked the theory behind state testing. It turns out that the theory he attacked has been established in research for more than 50 years, used in the best assessments in the world and designed to be sure that the tests are unbiased and fair. The tests, it turns out, are indeed quite sensitive to learning the state’s fine new standards.

In the face of all of the naysayers, we must stay the course. But staying the course does not mean that our new reforms are perfect. If there are tweaks that are needed, let us make them. If there are transitions that are needed, let us have those transitions. Business and civic leaders must listen to and work with educators who are ready to take responsibility and move forward with a proper implementation of these policies.

Testing now! Testing forever! Insert macho rallying cry here! Woo hoo!

Well, I guess that appeals to some people. Personally, I think we could do with a little reflection, and a little more balance. But I’m just a guy with two kids in the public schools. What do I know?

Pauken on testing

Patricia Kilday Hart has a conversation with Texas Workforce Commission Chair Tom Pauken about testing and accountability in public schools.

Tom Pauken

As a Texas Workforce Commissioner, Pauken has spent a lot of time studying whether our public school system prepares an educated workforce.

His conclusion? The focus on college-prep and testing has, well, “left behind” kids who would be better served earning an industrial certificate that would snag them a good job with a middle-class income.

Right now, “Help Wanted” signs across Texas beg for trained workers in welding, machinist, electrical or commercial trucking fields. But our college-centered school system – measured incessantly by tests – isn’t producing an adequate pool of applicants.

“I don’t think this teaching to the test benefits anyone,” said Pauken. “It is taking away from learning.”

Does every student need to be college ready? “We need multiple pathways to high school education,” he said. One pathway would be getting ready for college; another would be “career-oriented, with an emphasis on an industrial credential.”

Students who aren’t inclined to pursue college simply give up and drop out of school, Pauken says.

“It’s self-defeating. There are blue-collar jobs out there,” said Pauken. And more to come soon: “The average age of a welder is 50. This is a huge opportunity for young people, and it pays well.”

Pauken hopes to persuade the Texas Legislature to make sweeping changes to our education system when it meets in January – beginning with the acknowledgement that some students are not well-served by a strictly college-prep curriculum.

I agree with what Pauken says about the need for more vocational education, a subject he discusses at greater length in this Statesman editorial. I daresay most people would agree with that, and with the idea that there ought to be more than one pathway to educational success. I’ve interviewed a lot of candidates for various offices and asked them questions about public education and college readiness and standardized testing, and I’ve yet to hear one say that we need less vocational education. If Pauken has a strategy to achieve his stated goals then more power to him. I’m wondering what his plan is to overcome accountability absolutists like Bill Hammon and TAB, as they are unlikely to back off their no-retreat-on-testing stance. I wish Hart had explored that in her column, since it is potentially a critical story line for the 2013 Lege, but I suppose we’ll hear plenty about it before all is said and done. EoW has more.

A matter of priorities

Compare and contrast.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the outspoken voice of the far right in the Senate, said he will be pushing vouchers that parents of school-age children could use for charter schools, online offerings or additional alternatives to the public schools.

“To me, school choice is the photo ID bill of this session,” he said. “Our base has wanted us to pass photo voter ID for years, and we did it. They’ve been wanting us to pass school choice for years. This is the year to do it, in my view. That issue will do more to impact the future of Texas and the quality of education than anything else we could do.”

Patrick envisions a cornucopia of conservative legislation he’s sure will pass, including sanctuary cities restrictions and bills to allow guns on school campuses and outlaw “groping” by Transportation Security Administration personnel.

Conservatives also will push for a law that only allows spending increases if they are based on population and inflation, and Patrick will continue his crusade to change the Senate rule requiring a two-thirds vote to bring up legislation.

Everything they want to do if they have the numbers to do so is an ideological checklist item, which is a continuation of what they did in 2011. Compare that to what the One Texas PAC is talking about – water, electricity, transportation. You know, the things Texas needs to ensure its future. Which issues would you rather see get addressed?

By the way, if Sen. Patrick et al are going to be pushing vouchers – which, let’s be clear, means public money for private (read: “religious”) schools – I wonder if they’ve had a chat with their friends from Louisiana about unintended consequences. I also wonder if, like Louisiana, these private schools will be held to lower accountability standards than the public schools are, if they are held to any standards at all. Perhaps someone should ask Bill Hammond what he thinks about this little scheme. EoW and the Texas AFT Blog have more.

Let’s be clear about something: I disagree with Dan Patrick as much and as often as anyone can, but I truly lament the fact that he has nothing to offer on the real issues that Texas faces. I don’t pretend that my side has all the answers, but right now my side is the only one seeking them. Dan Patrick is a smart guy, and he could be very productive if he cared about something other than perpetuating his own power. I’m sure I wouldn’t like most of whatever solutions he’d have to offer, but I’m also sure there would be something there that could be a starting point for constructive debate. Instead, all we get is time-wasters, distractions, and assaults on those he disdains. I firmly believe it’s behavior like this that will hasten the downfall of his party, but in the meantime Texas’ problems get deeper and more intractable, and that does no one any good.

TAB takes a hostage

Can’t say I’m surprised by this tactic.

Leaders in the business community said Wednesday that they would not stand for increased funding for education if it came with any rollback of accountability standards in Texas public schools.

“If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained.”

The Capitol news conference, held by the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, comes as the standardized testing that is the backbone of the state accountability system is facing considerable backlash from parents, educators and lawmakers.

[…]

Wednesday, members of the workforce coalition — which includes groups influential in the Legislature like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Business Leadership Council (formerly the Governor’s Business Council) — made clear they would not support any kind of tweaks to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. An attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler to do just that during the last legislative session failed with the opposition of the business community.

“Before this landmark piece of legislation, HB3, is even fully implemented, we have people who want to roll it back and go back to fight the old wars about teaching to the test and all these other myths that are out there,” said Jim Windham, chairman of Texas Institute for Education Reform.

They argued that the existing system is the only way to ensure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.

“STAAR testing is an excellent step towards ensuring that the state’s education dollars are being directed into the classroom so that college- and workforce-ready students emerge from Texas public schools,” said James Golsan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

To be blunt, these guys are full of it. The TPPF thinks we spend too much on education to begin with, and TAB is about as likely to support any measure that would actually increase revenue for education as Rick Perry is. Saying they’ll oppose an increase in funding for public education unless their demands are met is like Willie Sutton saying he’ll oppose the hiring of more police officers unless those pesky bank robbery laws get repealed.

On a more general note, I don’t understand the single-minded focus on the STAAR tests. Everyone wants accountability, and everyone wants students to graduate having received a good, comprehensive, useful education, but why in the world must we believe that STAAR tests are the only way to achieve that? I agree with this:

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer whose daughter will be a sophomore at Anderson High School next fall, said she was offended by the insinuation that parents are being led around by superintendents.

“We are smart enough to see what that system is and is not doing and we can perfectly understand on our own that it is a badly flawed system that needs to be fixed,” said Majcher, who listened to the news conference at the Texas Capitol.

“I think it is inappropriate to hold public funding hostage to repairing the problems that we all know exist with the current testing system,” said Majcher, who is part of a new parent group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. “The testing system is badly implemented, badly flawed, there are a lot of groups, a lot of parents who are working very hard to make positive corrections to that. I would not call that rolling it back. I think when we see a mistake, we make a course correction.”

Exactly. We’ve been pushing various accountability measures for 20 years in Texas. Some have worked well, others not so much, but it’s been an ongoing experiment, with tweaks, adjustments, and changes of direction as needed. To believe that the STAAR and only the STAAR can achieve the goals these guys says they want is myopic and suggests they care more about the process than the result. Turns out, even some prominent Republicans see it that way, too.

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said Thursday that the state’s current public education accountability system is “broken and badly in need of fixing.”

During testimony at a hearing of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development on career and technology education, the former state GOP chairman expressed his disagreement with a coalition of business leaders and a conservative think tank that announced Wednesday it would oppose any additional funding to public education if there were any rollback of existing accountability standards.

Pauken, who along with two other commissioners oversees the development of the state’s workforce, said he was surprised that the coalition claimed to speak for the business community and conservatives as it defended the existing testing system.

He said he had found widespread agreement among business leaders, teachers, school district officials and community college representatives he had spoken to around the state that “teaching to the test is one of the real reasons that we have a significant skill trade shortage.”

Pauken said he spoke as both a businessman and a conservative when he criticized the position taken by the coalition.

“The current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test,” Pauken said, adding that a consequence of the system was that “‘real learning’ has been replaced by ‘test learning.’”

Hammond and his buddies are speaking in their own interest, not those of schools, students, or parents. We should not take their little tantrum seriously.

Are the end of course standards too low?

Beginning this year, high school students must pass new end of course exams in a variety of subjects in order to be able to graduate. These tests begin in the ninth grade and continue through the 12th. The standards will be relaxed for the first couple of years while everyone gets used to them. Some people think the state is going too easy on the schools by doing it that way.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has said the agency decided to phase in the standards, starting lower this year and increasing them through 2016, because students need time to adjust to the much more difficult questions on the new exams.

But a prominent business leader and the head of the state’s largest school district suggested the lower bar at the outset will give students, teachers and the public a skewed picture of schools’ performance.

‘False sense of security’

“It gives all of us an inadequate report of where we are,” said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier. “It gives you a false sense of security.”

Grier said he would prefer to start with the higher standards, even if it means more schools earn the state’s lowest academic rating.

“If they’re unacceptable, they’re unacceptable,” Grier said. “We need to accept the fact that they are what they are and get very busy trying to improve them.”

The standards also drew criticism from Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business.

Hammond said the scores should accurately reflect whether students are being prepared for college and careers.

The TEA plans to release statewide scores from the new tests, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, this week or next. Scattered reports suggest that students struggled, even with the lower passing standards.

Ninth-graders who took the exams in spring 2012 must answer between 37 percent and 65 percent of the questions correctly to pass, depending on the subject. By 2016, freshmen will need to correctly answer 60 percent to 70 percent to pass most of the exams.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said districts should have reports this year that show how students would have done had the higher standards been in place, so the information can be shared with the public.

I guess I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s normal to phase things like this in, the only difference here is the four year timeline instead of a two year timeline. Based on what Ratcliffe says, the schools should know exactly where they stand even if their rating starts out higher than where it would have been. You can see the TEA’s STAAR Resources page for all the relevant information. The main concern that I have heard about the STAAR tests, beyond the usual aversion to our increasingly standardized-test-centric school culture, is that it will exacerbate our already worrisome dropout problem. These tests are a big change, and we’re implementing them at the same time as we’ve slashed five billion dollars from public education. I am perfectly fine with taking it slowly to see if there are any negative effects before going all in on yet another high stakes test.

TAB joins school finance litigation

But not as a force for good.

The Texas Association of Business announced today that it will join a school finance lawsuit against the state, demanding a study of Texas school system efficiency.

“The Constitution of Texas calls for the state to provide an efficient public school system, and in our view, clearly the school system is not efficient,” said Bill Hammond, the organization’s president. “Only two-thirds of ninth-graders graduate in four years, and, of those who graduate, only a quarter are what we call career- or college-ready.”

Hammond hopes the suit will encourage the Legislature or the appropriate agency to produce a study into how much it may cost to create a better school system — even if that may cost more than what is currently spent.

“I would not preclude [spending more on students],” Hammond said. “We need an honest broker to do the study on the true costs of educating a child. We’ll deal with the facts as they’re presented to us.”

TAB will be joining the fifth party to sign up for litigation against the state, a group made up of parents. Hammond noted that they are they only litigants in the lawsuit looking specifically into efficiency.

Hammond made the announcement alongside former Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch and Chris Diamond, both attorneys in the case, and former House Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, who heads the organization bringing the lawsuit.

Calling that fifth group “made up of parents” is more than a bit disingenuous. The group in question is Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, and you only have to spend a few minutes on their sparse website to recognize that they’re a front group for charter schools and voucher proponents. Having TAB on their side is further evidence that their involvement isn’t about educating kids but about protecting their own financial interests. As that earlier Trib story notes, they’re there to provide a way out that doesn’t require the Lege to adequately fund public education. It’s not clear yet what role they’ll be allowed to play in the suit; the other plaintiffs, whose interests are not aligned with TREE’s, have not taken any formal action in response to their entry. Just remember when you see vague media descriptions of these guys who they really are. Postcards and Trail Blazers have more.

The SBOE can even make math controversial

The State Board of Education is gearing up to revise math standards, and as is always the case someone is pushing back.

The Texas Association of Business is urging the state board of education to go back to the drawing board on the standards, which the 15-member state panel is expected to take up next week.

The proposed math standards are “far from in-line with Texas’ goal of raising educational standards; in fact, the currently proposed standards are actually worse and less rigorous than the Common Core Standards,” the group’s president and CEO Bill Hammond wrote in an April 9 letter to board members.

[…]

In an interview, Hammond said his group hopes the state board will “stop the process” for debating (and possibly approving) the new math standards, arguing that they require “massive revisions.”

“Obviously, the leadership in Texas decided we’re not going to go with the common-core standards, and we don’t have an issue with that as long as we have excellent standards, well-written, rigorous standards,” said Hammond, whose organization represents more than 3,000 business members across Texas, as well as more than 200 local chambers of commerce.

Hammond added that his organization’s main concern is “about creating a workforce that will meet the needs of our employers.”

The Texas board of education gave preliminary approval to the revised math standards in January, then put them out for public comment. A press release from the Texas Education Agency said that the revised standards drew from the state’s existing standards “as well as math standards from Massachusetts, Minnesota, and international standards from places such as Singapore, which are all believed to have some of the world’s best math curriculum standards.”

The Texas business group asked Ze’ev Wurman, a vocal critic of the common math standards, to analyze the proposed Texas standards. Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive and former education official under President George W. Bush, recently served on a California commission that evaluated the suitability of the common standards for that state. (I recently blogged about a forum in which Wurman debated the common standards with a math professor.)

Wurman’s analysis concludes that the Texas draft “picks many nice ideas from the common core, yet it also introduces errors and clumsiness. … The draft creates a wordy, sometimes incoherent, and often garbled document, particularly in K-8, that shows the disparate fingerprints of the various groups and committees that influenced it through its development.”

Ultimately, Wurman contends that the math document is inferior, in terms of “coherence and rigor,” to both the common-core standards as well as “many of the better state standards. I am hard-pressed, indeed, to say that it represents an improvement over the existing [Texas standards].”

Hammond, of course, doesn’t want to actually pay for a public education system that will meet the needs of a growing workforce, but that’s a topic of another blog post. He is correct to note, as he does at the end of the story, that this is only controversial in a very limited sense because no one gets all that riled up about math standards. That EdWeek post from last week (the SBOE review begins today) was the only story I saw on this until the Trib wrote about it yesterday. The Texas Freedom Network, which is usually all over everything the SBOE does, has no mention of this, which should tell you something. Anyway, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time on this, but you can read the review and grade by grade analysis, which seem reasonable enough. I don’t have any strong feelings about this, but I do think all curriculum revisions the SBOE undertakes deserve to be scrutinized and publicized. This one may not be particularly political, but it’s still worthy of our attention. EdWeek link via Political Animal.

All the “news” that fits, we print

I’ve heard of slow news days before, but this is ridiculous.

Survey says...

State Comptroller Susan Combs trumpeted a survey Tuesday showing – as she wrote in the forward to a 15-page report – that a mere 3.4 percent of employers surveyed believe the Affordable Care Act will be good for their business.

Nearly two-thirds said federal health care is bad for business, her office reported. A total of 12.5 percent of respondents have reduced staffing due to health care reform. More than half expect higher costs due to federal health care reform.

But don’t look for a margin of error or other scientific underpinnings.

It’s not a scientific survey, as Combs freely acknowledged at her news conference with the heads of the Texas Association of Business (Bill Hammond) and National Federal of Independent Business/Texas (Will Newton).

Her poll was conducted online by SurveyMonkey (for $300 a year, she said, her office gets unlimited surveys).

About 21,000 members of the Texas Association of Business and NFIB were emailed to see if they would like to participate.

A total of 919 did so during the time the survey was posted, from Dec. 6 to Jan. 10.

That’s out of about 448,000 businesses in Texas, Combs said.

I’m not sure which is more pathetic, that an elected state official thought a Survey Monkey survey was newsworthy, or that at least four mainstream news outlets agreed with that assessment. Kudos to the Chron at least for noting the origins of the survey, which mitigates the punking somewhat. You have to admire Bill Hammond’s ability to get all those partisan talking points in unrebutted. Anyone can fire off a press release, but only a master gets to speak from the podium. Perhaps next we’ll get an official report on how a totally scientific survey of business owners reveals they favor lower taxes, fewer regulations, and a return of the three-martini lunch. Just remember, you heard it here first.

House approves a little more money, Senate readies its budget

Just a little.

Texas House budget-writers voted Monday to free up an additional $3 billion for key state services through such moves as speeding up tax collections, delaying payments and suspending the back-to-school sales tax holiday.

The bills next go to the full House, which Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, predicted could be willing to add $4 billion to $5 billion to a bare-bones spending plan it passed earlier this month.

“I think that we can come up with that number, and I think we can still pass the bill. It’s non-tax. It’s not additional fees than what was already assumed in the introduced bill,” he said.

The proposed two-year $164.5 billion House budget would cut 12.3 percent, or $23 billion, from current state and federal spending.

It would leave school districts short nearly $8 billion of money they would get under current funding formulas; cut Medicaid reimbursement rates so much that nursing home closures are threatened; and slash college student financial aid. Extra funds could be used to soften those cuts.

It should be noted that the bulk of what the House actually did was vote to delay making payments to school districts from August to September, which pushes them into the next biennium. That “saved” $1.8 billion, and while that means it’s $1.8 billion more that can be spent this biennium, it has to be made up somewhere. If we’re lucky, revenue projections will be adjusted upward and that money can be paid back before the next Lege meets. If not, that’ll be another $1.8 billion they find themselves in the hole. This is also why school districts maintain reserves, since they know damn well that the Lege is going to do stuff like this to them.

It remains the case that the Senate is planning to spend more than the House is. The Trib documents some of the Finance Committee’s work.

The proposals from Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, total $4.8 billion and include $2 billion in deferred payments, which help balance the budget by moving costs from the end of fiscal 2013 into the beginning of 2014. The state still has to make the payments, but not as part of the new budget. Another $1.4 billion comes from accelerated tax collections, in which the state moves the receipt of some of its taxes — on motor fuels, alcoholic beverages, corporate franchise and sales — from a later budget into an earlier one. Both maneuvers allow the state to pick which payments and which receipts will count for and against the budget they’re writing. Another $593 million comes from unspecified measures that, he said, would not require any changes in law.

The remaining $800 million comes from property sales, fee increases (on custom brokers stamps, process server certificates, a tax on small cigars labeled as a fee), changes in unclaimed property programs, and other measures.

Duncan said that all but a handful of the ideas are already in various bills being considered by the Legislature. He didn’t say whether any of the money on his list was already counted in either the House or Senate budget, or both.

The matter of moving more funds from the Permanent School Fund to the Available School Fund came up as well, though if the divided vote in favor of using it is any indication, it won’t have enough support to make into a ballot referendum. I note also that Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who vocally opposes using additional funds from the PSF, advocated using more of the Rainy Day Fund instead. Good for him.

Robert Miller puts the differences between the House and Senate budgets in context.

The House has passed a biennium budget spending $77.6 billion in General Revenue. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts has said that he believes he sees another $4.3 to $4.5 billion in non-tax revenue the House would spend. […] Assume the House budget ultimately increases by $4.5 billion to $82.1 billion. The question is what number will it take to make a deal with the Senate in the Regular Session?

Senate Finance is scheduled to vote out its version of the budget on Thursday and take it to the Senate floor next week. I don’t know the amount of the budget, but I believe that it will be in the $85 to $87 billion range. The real gap between the Senate and House when the budget gets to conference during the first week of May is likely to be $3 to $5 billion. At this point, it is anybody’s guess whether that gap can be bridged by May 30.

All of this is without taking into account the possibility of expanded gambling, for which Texas Association of Business President and CEO Bill Hammond advocated in the Trib on Monday. That appears to be a non-starter in the Senate, but if the House passes a joint resolution, who knows? There’s still a lot that can happen. Abby Rapoport and EoW have more.

UPDATE: Per the comment left by Land Commissioner Patterson, I have clarified the post to more accurately convey his intent. My apologies for the confusion, which came directly from my own confusion about what exactly was on the table.

Bill Hammond gets his name in the papers again

Whether he actually achieves any of the goals that are the basis for many of these stories remains to be seen.

Hammond, a former business owner and Republican lawmaker from Dallas, is accustomed to steering the state business organization between its support for Perry and his fervent belief that now is not the time to short-change public or higher education.

Hammond, who’s been interested in public education since his days as a lawmaker in the 1980s, has added higher education to his list of concerns for the state’s future workforce.

“If we don’t have an educated workforce, the jobs will leave,” Hammond said. “We are not meeting the needs of the future.”

It’s a message he takes to lawmakers, educators and the business community. The message not only chastises lawmakers who favor cutting education, it also faults the public and higher education establishment for not doing a better job of preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs.

“Business needs to be a critical friend,” Hammond said of his double-barreled message.

Hammond, listed this year on Texas Monthly’s list of the 25 people who most influence state politics, leads the oldest statewide business organization, which includes 3,500 businesses and 220 chambers of commerce.

For this legislative session, the Texas Association of Business has partnered with business and education groups to produce reports on ways to improve higher education and the need for better pre-kindergarten.

He also called for spending money from the state’s reserves, the so-called rainy day fund, weeks before state officials inched in that direction with a deal to spend about $3.2 billion to cover the shortfall in the current budget.

To those who would argue the state’s funding gap for the next two years can be closed with cuts alone, Hammond says, “You can’t cut from current (spending) levels and have a functioning government.”

I give Hammond credit for being out in front of the need to use the Rainy Day Fund, and I give him credit for being a voice of relative sanity on immigration. But as I’ve repeatedly said, I just don’t expect him to be very effective in getting what he says he wants. Maybe if he threatened to actually oppose some of the Republican legislators that stand in the way of these goals, I’d have more faith in him. But as long as he continues to be buddy-buddy with bad actors like Leo Berman, I expect he’ll be as successful as a parent who threatens his kids with various punishments for misbehavior but never carries it out. What does any currently elected Republican legislator have to fear if he doesn’t do what Bill Hammond asks? Not nearly as much as what they believe they have to fear from the teabaggers. As long as that’s the dynamic, the results will be utterly predictable.

Thousands attend the Save Texas Schools rally

Our voices have been heard. Whether we are listened to remains to be seen.

Parents, educators, and students from across the state marched to the Capitol Saturday for the Save Texas Schools rally to express their concern over what could amount to a $10 billion reduction in state funding for schools.

Initial estimates put attendance around 4,000. But during the event, organizers said they had to stop counting — they had volunteers marking people with stickers — at 11,000. Capitol police were more conservative, putting the number at around 8,000. Representatives from over 300 school districts were in attendance, according to Save Texas Schools. The crowd spanned several city blocks as it marched up Congress to the Capitol and participants filled up most of the building’s south lawn when they arrived.

During the two-hour event, speakers included Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa, San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, and Perrin-Whitt CISD superintendent John Kuhn. Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, was also slated to speak, but sent a text message Saturday morning saying he would be unable to because he had sprained his ankle, said Save Texas Schools spokesman Jason Sabo.

In addition to tapping the Rainy Day fund, rally-goers urged Gov. Rick Perry to sign the application for the $830 million currently tied up in a political fight in Congress from the federal Education Jobs fund. They also asked lawmakers to fix the state’s public education funding mechanism.

More here, here, here, and here, with the latter reminding us that the rallying isn’t over yet:

Most lawmakers were not in the Capitol on Saturday but will be in their offices on Monday when teachers plan to use their spring break to make the point again.

Rob D’Amico, spokesman for the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, predicted more than 3,400 teachers, school employees, parents and school board members would flood the Capitol, “a great way to continue the momentum from Saturday.”

For this to be a success, it cannot be a one-day, or one-week occurrence. Everybody needs to keep up the pressure throughout the legislative session, and then into the election season. We’re obviously not going to get everything we want out of this, but even if we get something approaching an acceptable amount, it will mean nothing if current officeholders don’t lose their jobs over it as well. It’s not just about the policy, it’s about the politics. The message is that not funding education is not an option, and anyone who isn’t on board with that is part of the problem. We’ve delivered part of that message now, but it’s just a down payment on what must come next November. EoW and Juanita have more.

UPDATE: More reports, from Stace and PDiddie.

Rally Day

Thanks in part to our only Governor, those attending today’s rally are even more fired up about it.

As thousands of teachers, school staffers and parents prepare for a state Capitol rally Saturday against education cuts, they’ve found new recruits and fresh motivation from an unlikely source: Gov. Rick Perry.

Reacting to Perry’s comments, some teachers and support staffers said Thursday they were angry and discouraged but mostly emboldened to publicly oppose billions of dollars of cuts in education.

Perry said state leaders were not to blame if as many as 100,000 people lose their jobs at school districts statewide.

“He just seems unaware of the agony schools are going through,” said Carolyn Foote, a librarian at Westlake High School in Eanes Independent School District near Austin. “It’s like a slap in the face to anyone working in education.”

[…]

“I think he’s been in office so long that he is going to get his way,” said Nadia Sanchez, a kindergarten teacher at Baskin Elementary in the San Antonio Independent School District. “I just don’t know if he’s ever going to understand.”

Other teachers, including Kimberly Reznicek, a fourth-grade teacher at Raba Elementary School in Northside ISD, thought Perry was passing the buck.

“He sounds like he is doing everything he can to be elusive to avoid answering the question that needs to be addressed: How is he going to fund school finance moving forward? That is a state government issue and all school districts can do is deal with how the state makes its school finance decisions. It’s not school districts’ fault,” Reznicek said.

I don’t know how many people are just now discovering this aspect of Perry’s personality, but I welcome them to the table anyway. And I sure hope they all remember this next November.

The Austin Chronicle has a great story on the people behind the effort.

Save Texas Schools fundraising committee co-Chair Brian Donovan said he’s inspired by the response coming from outside Austin. When the House released its draft budget, he said, “there were spitting mad editorials in Denton, Midland, and Odessa.” With that popular pressure rising, Donovan said, “a huge rally of angry parents from all over the state seemed the tonic needed to bring the Lege and leadership around to funding education as much as possible.”

By late February, Save Texas Schools already had 88 volunteer organizers around the state. That group includes people like Kimberly Miller, a Denton Independent School District resident whose whole family has signed up to help spread the word. Even though its population is rapidly expanding, Denton faces a $15 million-to-$16-million drop-off in state funding. “We’ve had a lot of public outcry in Austin about the cuts, and they have got coverage,” said Miller. “But talking to districts outside of the capital, they’ve found it very hard to get their story heard.”

The Save Texas Schools organizers soon found they were not alone in planning rallies and that others were eager to combine their efforts. Within days of the draft House budget being released, Weeks heard about statewide efforts being planned as far away as Pasadena and Arlington, where Leanne Rand was already working on her own protest. Like most parents of school-age children, Rand had heard about the state budget crisis. Yet it was purely an abstraction until the principal at her kids’ high school explained what the district’s projected $35 million shortfall would mean on his campus: fewer staff, less money for maintenance, and the loss of programs like Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities. Rand said, “Frank­ly, it made me mad, and I said something like, ‘We should march on Austin – I am going to organize a Million Mom March.'” While she admits she was half-joking at first, she was quickly contacted by parents who wanted to get involved, along with groups and businesses that wanted to sponsor Arlington’s attendance at the march.

The Dads Club at Arlington’s Butler Ele­ment­ary is pooling money to cover travel costs for teachers, and that effort is simply one part of a bigger push to get everyone informed about the issues and solutions. The North Arling­ton Education Alliance has scheduled a series of campus-based information sessions to walk people through the numbers. Butler Dads Club communications officer David Wil­banks is particularly worried about the extra stress the situation is placing on kids, but so far, he said, “Parents are uninformed as to how the state and our district woke up and found ourselves in this situation.”

How nice it would have been if people had woken up about this six months ago, but at least it’s happening now. I think it’s already had the effect of making some people nervous, as evidenced by this hysterical reaction from professional “drown it in the bathtub” advocate Peggy Venable:

[Allen Weeks, who heads the coalition’s steering committee and leads Austin Voices for Education and Youth, a nonprofit educational advocacy group that is helping coordinate the rally and handling donations] said the total cost of the rally and its promotion will be about $30,000, mostly direct and promotional costs. As of Thursday, 130 donors had contributed just under $23,000. Contributions have come in small amounts — the largest being three $1,000 donations — and “lots of in-kind volunteer hours,” he said.

Venable challenged Weeks’ grass-roots claim, and accused the coalition of spreading an “alarmist message.”

“These are radical liberal organizations that are pushing this, and they are using citizens who are ill-informed about how our dollars are currently being spent as pawns,” she said.

Hey, Peggy? Tell that to Bill Hammond:

Even the otherwise parsimonious Texas Association of Business has voiced concerns that slicing education funding now will endanger the state’s long-term economic viability. The group has called on lawmakers to use $1.9 billion from the Available School Fund to continue funding all-day prekindergarten and the technology allotment, as well as providing the updated textbooks required for the new curriculum. Normally a staunch opponent of government spending, TAB President Bill Ham­mond has become a vocal advocate for protecting education today to create better workers tomorrow. Hammond said, “The Legis­lature can and should invest in education and should make substantive reforms that ensure excellence over mediocrity.”

As a sign of how much of a political paradigm shift Save Texas Schools could be, Ham­mond is currently penciled in along with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to speak at the March 12 rally. Weeks described that diversity of voices as vital in breaking any misconceptions about the breadth of support. He said, “If it’s another rally that people can say, ‘Oh, it’s those people again,’ then it’s not very effective.”

Like I said, judging by Venable’s paranoia, it’s already been effective. Now we just need to make sure there’s followup, during the session and in next year’s elections.

I will not be at the event, but I expect to receive reports and photos from it from some folks who are there. I will post them as I can. If you attend, please let us know how it’s going – leave comments or drop me a note at kuff – at – offthekuff – dot -com. Thanks!

The business lobby’s guide to balancing the budget

Bill Hammond, the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, pens an op-ed with his preferred approach to the budget. The main thing to note is right here:

The state has $72.2 billion available for general-purpose spending during the 2012-13 biennium, leaving a $15 billion gap from the current general revenue spending of $87 billion.

How do we close that gap?

It will take grit and courage to address the shortfall without raising taxes, creating new fees or increasing existing ones.

Difficult? Yes. Doable? Absolutely.

First, let’s hold the line on general revenue spending at its current level of $87 billion for the biennium.

Given that the Pitts and Ogden budget drafts held the line at $72.2 billion, holding it at $87 billion – the amount spent in 2009 – would be a major step forward. It’s still not good, it still doesn’t acknowledge the state’s growth, it still shortchanges education because as Hammond would have it the structural deficit caused by the property tax cut and insufficient business margins tax continues to be ignored, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what’s currently being discussed.

Hammond’s methods for closing the $15 billion gap between what we spent in 2009 and what the draft budgets propose to spend now are a bit shaky. He starts with $6 billion from the Rainy Day fund, throws in another $2.5 billion from the Available School Fund, about which I confess I know very little, and grudgingly agrees to expanded gambling, which he says would generate another billion for this biennium. From there, he suggests some savings, delaying some payments by a day to put them in the next biennium, and waves his hands at “some of the thoughtful recommendations laid out in recent days by organizations like the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and conservative think tanks”, none of which suggests more revenue to me. I don’t have a problem with finding legitimate savings, though my opening bid for that would be the LBB recommendations, which do include revenue ideas as well, nor would I object to an accounting trick or two as a last resort, but these suggestions are not compatible with finding enough revenue to “hold the line” at $87 billion.

I don’t want to be too critical, because to me the main point is that Hammond is moving the chains in a direction I favor and is giving the Republicans his organization supports rhetorical cover for using the Rainy Day fund. It’s not where the state needs to be, but I’m more than happy to debate how to spend $87 billion instead of how to spend $72 billion. I hope that by writing this, Hammond is acknowledging that the mainstream consensus position is not with the Pitts/Ogden budget. That by itself would mean a lot.

Hammond’s op-ed can now also be seen in the DMN and at the Trib, where it’s accompanied by counterpoints from the CPPP’s Eva de Lina Castro and Talmadge “Kick Grandma to the street” Heflin. Wonder if he feels weird being in the “center” of this debate. Burka has more.

Business leaders urged to oppose “cuts only” approach to the budget

Good luck with that.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby is helping lead an effort to rally Texas business leaders against what he calls a “catastrophic” cuts-only approach to balancing the state’s budget in the face of a massive shortfall, estimated at $15 billion to $27 billion over the next two years.

Hobby, a board member of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, and F. Scott McCown, the group’s executive director, say in a letter being sent today to the state’s hundreds of chambers of commerce that such an approach would undermine the state’s economic recovery, weaken education and leave vulnerable Texans unprotected. The center focuses on low- and moderate-income Texans.

“We simply can’t balance the budget through cuts alone without doing terrible damage to our economy and our future,” Hobby and McCown said in the letter.

They want business leaders to speak up for a “balanced approach” that includes spending the state’s rainy day fund savings account, which is expected to contain $9.4 billion; adding new revenue through such options as increasing alcohol or tobacco taxes; raising taxes on “sugar-loaded” drinks; eliminating “unwarranted” sales tax exemptions; or temporarily increasing the state’s sales tax rate.

You can read Hobby and McCown’s letter here I applaud them for this, and I wish them the very best of luck, but a couple of points. One, let’s not expect too much from the business community. They’re kinda sorta on board with this, but if you read their quotes in the story or listen to what they have to say here, they’re supportive in a very mush-mouthed kind of way. They’re okay with using the Rainy Day Fund – which is a big deal, don’t get me wrong – but not much beyond that. They don’t want to see education gutted, but they don’t want to pay for it, either.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, which has 220 local chambers as members, said his group opposes a cuts-only approach, although it doesn’t back spending the entire rainy day fund and doesn’t want new taxes. It favors keeping spending about the same over the next two years.

Well, we have $15 billion less to spend than we did two years ago, and the entire Rainy Day Fund would only cover 60% of that. How do you expect us to get there from here, Bill? This is likely to have as much effect on the debate as the business community’s pitiably weak opposition to anti-immigration legislation has had. I have more faith in the school superintendents.

The other point I’d make is that if I’d written the CPPP’s letter, I’d have stuck to the revenue ideas already on the table, which include reviewing the sales tax exemptions, fixing the business margins tax – yes, I know, even with this audience – the LBB recommendations, and expanded gambling. I would not have mentioned new things like the sugar tax or other extra sin taxes, since they’re extremely unlikely to get anywhere and might distract from the overall message. Just my opinion.

By the way, if anyone reading this still thinks that balancing the budget with cuts only is a good idea, here’s more evidence that you’re wrong.

State protective services chief Anne Heiligenstein dropped some bad news on Senate budget writers today: Her year-old push to redesign the payment system for foster care providers will be a non-starter if lawmakers approve proposed cuts that would effectively drive down rates by 12 percent.

Abused and neglected children with complex emotional and psychiatric problems often are ripped from their home communities in North Texas and shipped down I-45 to so-called “residential treatment centers” in the Houston area, Heiligenstein has said, saying she’d like to change that. An agreed-upon overhaul of rates and contracting would put a private provider in charge of a region, which would include a duty to make sure there are enough beds close to home.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who’s sponsoring the redesign bill, asked if efficiencies might be found that would allow the effort to go forward.

Not really, said Heiligenstein, head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services.

“The presumption for being able to do this is that there would not be a rate roll-back,” she told the Senate Finance Committee. “We will not ask for an increase in foster care rates … , but we need what is currently invested in the system, plus normal caseload growth.”

Is that something you really want to support? BurkaBlog has more.