There are still about five weeks left in this legislative session. In legislative time, this can be an eternity. Issues can be resolved (or fall apart) overnight, and if you’re happy with the way something is going, you have to be mentally prepared to be a little less happy about it tomorrow.

On the other hand, the legislative process gets more and more bogged down as schedules and calendars get longer and deadlines approach. If a bill hasn’t had a hearing yet, its chances of passage are decreasing by the day. Even if a proposal has passed through the House or Senate, getting it through the second chamber is fraught with obstacles.

Not the least of these is the ever-present tension between the House and the Senate. One chamber (or both) may start holding the other chamber’s bills hostage to try to accomplish something (or sometimes just out of spite) and even minor bills can get caught up in the process. This session, there are several education issues over which the House and Senate are sparring.

Property tax reform

Although not strictly an educational issue, as the main source of funding for public schools, property tax reform is a huge issue for public education this session. Efforts to lower property taxes will have implications for school districts that rely on those taxes, and ensuring that the state can provide adequate funding to offset reduced revenues is a key part of any reform bill.

The House and Senate have taken very different approaches to school district property tax reform. The Senate wants to restrict property tax revenue growth to 2.5% before voter approval is needed — this is much more limiting than the current 8%. The Senate even eased that restriction for other local governments to 3.5%, but kept school districts at the lower limit. The House left school districts out of its property tax reform bill entirely, preferring to address the issue by compressing tax rates in its school finance bill.

Possibly complicating the issue was the recent endorsement by the Big Three (Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen) of a sales tax increase to offset the reduction in property taxes. This proposal has opponents in both parties — many Republicans oppose any tax increase; many Democrats believe a sales tax increase will be regressive, hitting lower income Texans the hardest. In another twist, House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty has proposed that a portion of the sales tax increase be used for public school spending, while Senate Property Tax Committee Chair Paul Bettencourt insists that it all go toward property tax reductions.

School finance / salaries

The Senate recently revised its budget proposal to increase proposed funding for public education to match the House —- $9 billion total in new funding, including money for property tax reduction. The key difference is the extent to which districts would be able to choose what to do with the new funding. The Senate dictates that $4 billion — a majority of the non-property-tax funding — be used to provide a $5,000 salary increase for teachers and librarians. The House would leave much more up to districts’ discretion, requiring that 25% of new funding be used for salary increases for non-administrative personnel. This results in a more widespread, but smaller raise — if distributed equally among non-administrative employees, the raise would be around $1,850.

The approximately $2 billion in school funding that the Senate recently added will presumably be addressed in the Senate school finance bill, a revised version of which is expected to be revealed next week. The House has provided a large increase in the basic allotment (the fundamental per-pupil amount distributed to districts) and has targeted certain populations with specific programs: funding for optional summer days for struggling students, an increase in the special education allotment, and more.

On the issue of teacher merit pay, the House revised its proposal to a more favorable differentiated pay program suggested by TCTA that targets funding for struggling schools and does not require the use of student standardized test performance or student surveys in teacher evaluations or compensation. The Senate bill as filed includes a more traditional merit pay proposal. 

TRS pension fund

A bill to achieve actuarial soundness for the TRS pension fund as early as next year has moved quickly through the process, but there are major differences between the House and Senate versions. As it passed the Senate, SB 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman would require increases in contributions from the state, active members and school districts to enhance funding for TRS; it would also provide a one-time check of $500 for retirees. We have been told that many senators feel strongly that all three categories of contributions should be increased. The House version only increases the state’s contribution, and the retiree check would be $2,400.

The ultimate goal for both proposals is to get the pension fund to a point where it can afford an ongoing cost-of-living increase for retirees, but this cannot be accomplished until after actuarial soundness is reached.