Capitol Briefs

• The lazy days of summer will last a little longer for students across the state thanks to a law passed in 2006, which will extend the summer break by one week. All Texas schools will start on or after the fourth Monday in August, effective this school year. The law was passed during a special session last year as one part of a massive state overhaul of the school funding system following the dismantling of the so-called Robin Hood system. Prior to 2006, schools were required to start the week during which Aug. 21 falls, but administrators could apply to the state for a waiver to begin classes earlier. The new law eliminates all waivers and sets a firm date. Lawmakers hope this will save schools money on cooling costs, which are highest in the early weeks of August. While this will surely come as good news to Texas students, some school administrators are concerned that they are losing control over calendar-setting and may have to extend school into late May or early June in order to have enough instructional days. – Justin Ward

• The last of Austin Sen. Kirk Watson's Highway 130 bills – the one that would have created a utility infrastructure district for the city of Austin along the highway corridor – died with a whimper on the House calendar just before session's end. Watson searched until the last minute for some piece of legislation to attach it to in the Senate. No go. In the meantime, the city's Planning Commission still hopes the idea will have new life next session, given the city's sustainability initiative to create nodes of high-density development without the creation of the much-hated, privately funded municipal utility districts. MUDs, while handy for paying for infrastructure, are costly and cumbersome to annex, says the city. – Kimberly Reeves

• The exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills could be on its way out if the governor signs the compromise hammered out between House and Senate in the last hours of the recent legislative session. The compromise on SB 1031, a hybrid version of the two chambers' views, includes an interesting twist for students who fall short of passing the required cumulative score on end-of-course exams. If scores fall short in a particular subject area, the student would enroll in a college-preparatory course in their senior year and take an additional test to erase the "debt score." The intention is to both prepare the student for a fourth test in the subject area and minimize remedial education for students who do plan to go on to a college education. – K.R.

• The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition lost its fight to tie the construction of new prison beds to the implementation of additional diversion programs, a move that Director Ana Yanez-Correa argued would save significant taxpayer dollars. However, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, did manage to finally get his intermediate sanctions measure, another aspect of his "smart on crime" agenda this session, attached to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice sunset bill during the waning hours of the session. The measure would provide that those who violate conditions of parole on technical violations – say, a failed urine test for someone who is not supposed to touch drugs or alcohol – would be sent to an intermediate facility on a first offense before parole is revoked and the parolee is sent back to serve a prison term. – K.R.

• Over at the pink dome, the Senate failed in its wish to strip special items funding from the state's higher education budget this year. Special items funding covers initiatives that typically fall outside the traditional classroom budget, such as UT's McDonald Observatory in West Texas, or seed money for community redevelopment in the low-income neighborhoods just north of the University of Houston-Downtown. When the budget came down to a vote in the Senate, Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she took serious issue with many of the out-of-bounds special-items-funding measures. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, agreed, but said that too many universities say they need the special items funding simply to cover operational costs. Zaffirini said it's time to get an institution-specific funding formula, one that is tailored to the needs and services provided by the medical or instructional institution. Expect to see "special items" continue to be a substantive issue next session. – K.R.

• All public school employees will be fingerprinted under SB 9, a bill sponsored and passed by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, that received plenty of emotional testimony from parents whose children were involved in inappropriate sexual relationships with teachers. The bill requires fingerprints for a national background check, creates a Department of Public Safety database so information can be shared between districts, and tags an educator's certificate when allegations of inappropriate conduct are lodged. Fingerprinting current and past employees, by itself, is expected to cost about $10 million. Privately, education groups say it's a wide net that is unlikely to catch the most pervasive type of inappropriate relationship, the illicit sexual relationship between a teacher, coach, or sponsor and a high school student. – K.R.

• What are state employees going to get from the state in this flush economy and multi-billion-dollar surplus? Not much, according to the budget. This session's cornucopia of goodness provided only a 2% raise for current state employees. And retired teachers can expect a one-time 13th monthly check this year rather than any significant cost-of-living adjustment. That check, however, will be written on the backs of current teachers, who will have to boost their own contribution to the teacher retirement system in order to pay for the raise. That contribution will be matched by the state. Lawmakers argue that the measure makes the retirement system actuarially sound. Teacher groups argue that the state owes the system an accumulated $5 billion, a sum that it continues to fail to pay. The budget still awaits the signature of the governor. – K.R.

• The Senate, a bit leery of the electronic aspects of the proposed income verification measure added to the Children's Health Insurance Program bill, managed to add a caveat in the conference report that requires the verification system not be implemented until it is fully tested. If that sounds familiar – à la the new legislative oversight committee for the technical aspects of the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System – it is. Senators as diverse as Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, and Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, want to make sure all the Health and Human Services Commission technology is fully vetted before it's put out into widespread circulation. – K.R.

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