Why it’s called a grind

Dear Friend:

Last week, I wrote about the many bad bills prioritized in the Texas Senate. While those are important, and rightfully grab a large share of headlines, there is much more to what we do. This is the part of the session where bills really start moving, with more committee hearings and longer floor debates. Here’s a brief update on some of that work.

Special education cap removal

The Texas Senate Education Committee unanimously passed SB 160, the first bill I filed this session, which eliminates the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) cap on special education enrollment. While the agency has stated it no longer will use the cap, this bill ensures that it cannot.

As background, the TEA adopted a monitoring policy that set an arbitrary 8.5 percent target for children receiving special education services in Texas public schools. When the cap was implemented in 2004, Texas was comparable to the national special education enrollment average at about 12 percent. But by 2015, Texas reached TEA’s 8.5 percent target, the lowest special education enrollment in the nation.

This is about civil rights. One hundred percent of kids that qualify for special education services, should receive those services. The legislature needs to ensure we don’t ever see a cap like this again. Moreover, insofar as a culture of delaying special education evaluations has developed because of this cap, we as the legislature need to speak with a strong voice to say that culture ends now.

Scrap tire bill

Another priority, finding a solution to a problem that has vexed communities and lawmakers for a decade, is SB 570, which outlines methods by which tires may be disposed and improves enforcement capabilities. That bill passed the full Senate last week.

Illegal tire disposal has been a rampant problem in Texas for years. More than 36 million tires are discarded each year in Texas, roughly one and a half tires for every person residing in the state. If not transported and disposed of properly, these tires can lead to dangerous outcomes including costly, environmentally hazardous tire piles and increased public health and safety risks, from fires to vector-borne illnesses like Zika, West Nile, and dengue fever.

This comprehensive bill is the result of work by a large stakeholder group over the past several years. The goal is to guarantee bad actors are stopped without overregulating the many model industry participants across the state. You can read more details about how the bill achieves these goals here

District 29 economic development

Two bills that benefit El Paso County and Presidio County, which is on the eastern side of District 29, passed the Senate last week.

The bills are S.B. 799, which allows El Paso County to continue collecting a hotel occupancy tax (HOT) that is used for such items as tourism promotion and historic preservation, and S.B. 440, which allows Marfa to use HOT revenue to maintain and improve its airport.

A large part of the job in Austin is making sure we take care of local priorities. With these items, key elements of the Senate District 29 agenda are addressed. You can read more about those bills here.

Coming next week

I have almost a dozen bills coming up for discussion this week in committee. I’ll highlight two, which will be heard in the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee:

SB 568 requires the Railroad Commission of Texas to develop a searchable internet database where the public can search for violations, inspection reports, enforcement actions, and complaints. In 2016, Sunset Commission staff reported extensively on the RRC’s challenges with data collection, concluding that nearly 40,000 actionable spills were not referred for enforcement. Late last year, I requested information from the RRC on its response to large oil and gas spills into various Texas waterways during flooding events dating back to 2014, but the RRC was not able to succinctly describe the spills or its enforcement actions. The Senate budget gives the RRC more than $3 million for upgrading its information technology for this purpose. Surely with these upgrades forthcoming, the RRC can also provide inspection and enforcement information online to the public.

SB 473 requires that workers in dangerous industries be given potentially life-saving rest breaks. A 2013 study by Workers Defense Project, in collaboration with UT Austin, found that 41 percent of construction workers surveyed do not receive such rest breaks. With Texas’ tremendous summer heat, denying regular breaks can be deadly. In fiscal year 2016 alone, at least four Texas workers died on the job due to heat-related illnesses. SB 473 would require all construction workers in the state to be provided a 15-minute rest break for every four hours of work.

Both bills will be heard at the hearing starting at 9 a.m. CST Tuesday (April 11, 2017), and can be viewed live at this link.

The other bills will be heard in Senate State Affairs, Criminal Justice, and Health and Human Services. Committee schedules can be viewed here: http://www.senate.texas.gov/committees.php

Higher Education

Last week the Senate passed SB 18, which would eliminate the requirement that universities set aside 15 percent of tuition for use as financial aid funds. Instead, universities could use those funds for operations, eliminating the grants, scholarships, and work-study programs that so many Texas students rely on as they pursue a college degree. Supporters of the bill say that with the elimination of tuition set-asides, universities will be able to lower their tuition rates, making college more affordable for students. However, there is no requirement that universities do so, and the bill does not propose a source for supplemental financial aid.

This could be particularly acute when considered in conjunction with a Senate budget proposal that eliminates more than $300 million from Texas higher education and decreasing funds for Texas Grants. During the 2013-14 school year, more than 84,896 students from poor and middle-income families benefited from the funds, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB).

These issues are even further highlighted by SB 2119, which could come up next week. The bill would eliminate the Top 10 percent rule, which guarantees admission to Texas public colleges and universities to students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. This has been especially important when it comes to access to UT Austin, the state’s flagship university.

More than 100 District 29 freshmen were able to enter UT Austin in 2015 alone because of this rule. Those 116 students represented more than 90 percent of students from my district who were in that year’s entering freshman class. The rule helps low and middle income students, and rural students, attend the state’s flagship university.

These kids are doing the work, as proven by their class status, and this is one of the great opportunity programs left in a state that continually cuts the educational resources that are instrumental in helping grow and maintain a strong middle class.

About the budget

When it comes to public schools, higher ed, and financial aid, the House version is better than the Senate version, but the Senate’s proposal does better on health care, which includes Medicaid. Neither is truly sufficient. After accounting for population growth and inflation, both the Senate and House 2018-2019 budgets are at least six percent lower than the current budget. Over the next month or so, the conference committee will work out the final budget. Stay tuned for updates.

Until then, and as always, I encourage your letters, emails, and phone calls. You can contact my office by clicking here.


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