School financing, school accountability, beer, redistricting, and more
Let the Budget Pingpong Commence! On March 20, the Texas Senate voted out Senate Bill 1, its draft budget for the 2014-15 biennium, and sent it to the House. As is customary, the House pulled the upper chamber's $195.5 billion proposal and substituted its own $193.8 billion spending plan. The House version is expected to reach the floor on April 1, and from there it will be thrashed into a consensus version by a conference committee. Both measures do a little to fill the $5.4 billion school finance hole lawmakers dug in 2011. The Senate draft budget covers projected enrollment growth and adds another $1.4 billion to public school coffers. While the House version spends less overall, it adds $1.1 billion more into the Foundation School Program than does the Senate plan.
Less Testing, More Options The House has rewritten the state's complex high school graduation and accountability rules. The massive House Bill 5 passed on second reading 145-2 on March 26 (Reps. Mark Strama, D-Austin, and Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, were the only nays). The bill proposes fewer end-of-course exams, more paths to graduation, and introduces a simplified A to F grading system for school districts. The final product, which now heads to the Senate, contains 70 floor amendments: More were withdrawn and are expected to be filed as separate bills. Over protests from pro-testing conservative groups like the Texas Association of Business, bill author and House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, won the big argument over whether career and technical students needed to take advanced academic exams like Algebra II.
Patrick's Tears Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston, became emotional during his committee's March 21 meeting as he dumped his plan to end the cap on the number of charter schools in Texas. Instead, he is hedging his bets on a tiered increase. Currently, Texas law only allows for 215 charters statewide. Patrick's new proposal would add 20 for the 2014-15 school year and 35 in 2015-16. His step back is seen as an admission that the House could kill the whole bill, rather than lift the cap.
Grants for Guns If Texas isn't already gun-friendly enough, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has fast-tracked legislation that would subsidize gun manufacturers who move to Texas. On March 25, the Agriculture, Rural Affairs & Homeland Security Committee – which Estes chairs – sent SB 1467 to the Local and Consent Calendars Committee. It would instruct the Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office to use cash from the Texas Enterprise Fund to "facilitate the location, expansion, and retention of firearms manufacturers, firearms accessory manufacturers, and ammunition manufacturers to the state."
Next Round's on Carona and Eltife? Texas' draconian and antiquated three-tier beer system – separating brewers, distributors, and sellers – took one step closer to reform March 25, as the Senate unanimously passed two measures by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and approved a third by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas by a vote of 30-1. The current legislative framework has been blamed for throttling the state's nascent brewpub and microbrewery industry. Eltife's SB 515 would allow brewpubs to produce up to 10,000 barrels of beer a year (up from 5,000 now) and self-distribute 1,000 barrels to licensed retailers. Similarly, SB 518 would let craft brewers sell up to 5,000 barrels a year for on-site consumption. However, craft brewers are still unhappy that Carona's SB 639 would end their ability to sell distribution rights to wholesalers – a measure inserted at the request of the powerful Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas.
Reynolds vs. Texas More legal woes for Rep. Ron Reynolds. The Fort Bend Democrat is one of a group of lawyers being prosecuted by the Montgomery County DA for barratry – the fancy term for ambulance chasing. Reynolds had similar charges dropped in Harris County in February: That was one of 150 cases that have imploded after federal agents accused Harris Co. D.A.'s Office Investigator Lonnie Blevins of stealing evidence.
Remember Redistricting? March 22 was the deadline for parties in the never-ending redistricting legislation to file opinions with the court in San Antonio on how they should handle the state's House and Senate maps. However, the three-judge panel has told all parties that it will not rule in this case until the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Shelby Co. v. Holder, a pending case dealing with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Theoretically, they could send the measure back to the Legislature. Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, have both introduced bills arguing that the current interim maps the San Antonio court drew last year are legal and should be left in place. However, neither has even had a committee hearing yet.