The Austin Chronicle

Lege Lines: School Finance Math; Tax Plans Diverge; Veteran Benefits Restricted; and More

Is school finance dead this session?; House and Senate tax plans split; Lege restricts veterans' benefits; and more

By Richard Whittaker, May 15, 2015, News

School Finance: Add Cash, Subtract Reform

School finance reform could be dead for this session. House Bill 1759 by House Pub­lic Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, was the big hope for relief for school districts (see "The Educa­tion Session," May 1). Not only would it provide extra cash for schools, but it would also reduce the Robin Hood recapture payments by districts like Austin ISD, which is forecast to send over $500 million to state coffers over the next biennium. However, while the bill left committee on April 29, it will only return to the House floor on May 14th – the very last day for a bill to receive a second reading. Senate Public Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friends­wood, hasn't even seen the text yet, and with only a few days left for substantive committee action, he is extremely doubtful that the bill stands any chance of passage.

There is some bright news, however. The draft budget includes at least some extra money, beyond student enrollment growth and inflation, in the basic funding. However, the House and Senate still disagree on numbers, with the lower chamber proposing $2.2 billion, and the upper looking for $1.2 billion.

There's also an extra $130 million for early education. On May 7, the Senate approved HB 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-King­wood, which provides extra cash for half-day pre-K programs that reach new standards to be set by the Texas Education Agency. There were floor amendments, the most controversial of which was by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which explicitly defines the money as a grant. That raised eyebrows with Dems such as Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who had been told repeatedly during committee hearings, including by Huberty, that this was not a grant. The Republicans also capped the measure at $130 million for the biennium, after some forecasts put the total bill at closer to $500 million.

So what does this mean for school finance reform? Taylor argued that Aycock's piecemeal approach, which would mean further work in two years' time, is insufficient. He argues that it will take a special session, with all 181 legislative minds focused just on education, to get anywhere.

Tax Cuts Fall in a Hole

Lawmakers are using part of a supposed surplus to fund that education hike, but what about the rest? The House and Senate have been maneuvering around how to cut taxes. The House wants the state's first ever sales tax cut, while the Senate wants to provide some property tax relief. The gap has seemed impossible to bridge, but at least they both agreed on reducing the business franchise tax. However, now they may not have the money to do that.

On April 30, the 3rd Court of Appeals issued what could be a landmark ruling in the case of American Multi-Cinema, Inc. v. Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Attorney Gen­eral Ken Paxton. AMC, the movie theatre chain, convinced the court that their auditoriums and projection booths are production space, meaning they can count them against their franchise tax bill. The state now owes them a $1.2 million refund for their 2008 and 2009 tax returns. Scale that out to all such businesses, and the state could face a $1.5 billion reduction in franchise tax receipts – which could cripple lawmakers' scheme for a $2.6 billion franchise tax cut.

A Military Education

Texas talks a big game when it comes to military veterans, but legislators are moving fast on cutting an important benefit that helps them and their families get an education. On May 8, the House Higher Education Committee voted 5-1 to send Senate Bill 1735 to the floor. The measure revamps the 86-year-old Hazlewood Act exemption, the longstanding tuition program for military veterans and their surviving children. The bill was authored by U.S. Army veteran Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, but it does little for other veterans besides make it harder for them to get these benefits.

The bill adds on a pile of restrictions, including that before a veteran takes their first class, they must have been a Texas resident for the preceeding eight years, and the class must take place within 15 years of the veteran's honorable discharge. If the benefits are taken by an heir, the student is limited to 60 credit hours, and could only get those benefits if their parent had served in the military for six years. They will also have to maintain a 2.5 GPA and a 24-credit-hour workload.

Birdwell has claimed that the changes are necessary to keep the program financially viable. However, Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said that if the Legislature is serious about its economic future, "the solution should be to increase funding to public universities."

Mandatory Gun Shows

More shenanigans from the firearms industry. HB 3866 by Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Drip­ping Springs, would force municipally owned convention and exhibition centers to lease to gun shows. Not only that, but they would be forced to charge the lowest rents possible – meaning matching the same kind of sweetheart deals they offer to, say, charities, or local school districts. Somehow this slipped through the House Urban Affairs Committee, and Committee Chair Carol Alvarado, D-Pasadena, sent it to the Local and Consent Calendars Com­mit­tee, meaning it was scheduled to pass the House without debate on May 8 – that is until lawmakers from the Travis County and Dallas delegations, hearing concerns from their local conference centers, challenged how the bill was being handled. It was very quietly sent back to Calendars and rescheduled for May 12, minus the discount pricing. Then after further pressure from urban Democrats, spearheaded by San Antonio freshman Rep. Diego Bernal, the bill was sent back to Calendars again. No longer classified as local or consensual, it is now seen as virtually dead.

Short Lines

Texas Rangers are now investigating reports that a conservative group – linked to the same people who entrapped liberal group ACORN and forced its closure – have been covertly taping Texas lawmakers... Some pro-pot legalization advocates online got prematurely excited that Texas is legalizing marijuana: in fact, the Senate approved SB 339 by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would allow the use of cannabis oil for sufferers of particularly severe epilepsy. It still has to pass the less pot-friendly House... Gov. Greg Abbott has signed SB 149, creating high school graduation committees. The measure, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, creates a path to graduation for high-achieving students who are struggling with end-of-course exams.

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