Author: suem

Stop the real steal, Dan Patrick

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t condone the violence at the U.S. Capitol, but as President Trump’s campaign chairman in Texas, he fanned the flames and the lie of the “Stop the Steal” movement that resulted in the insurrection. He even offered rewards of as much as $1 million for people with proof of voter fraud.

Patrick and the “Stop the Steal” movement wrongfully claimed that democracy was being “stolen” in the presidential election, when in truth they were undermining to a dangerous extent the democratic process.

Now, the Texas Legislature is in session, and Patrick is back to promoting his own version of theft in the state Senate. In his zeal to neutralize the influence of Democratic (upper case) senators, he has engineered another rule change to undermine democracy (lower case) in that chamber.

For many years before Patrick took office as lieutenant governor in 2015, the Senate had operated under what was called the two-thirds rule. That provided that no bill could be brought up for debate by the full Senate without the approval of at least two-thirds of the senators who were present. If all 31 senators were present, 21 had to approve debate. That meant only 11 senators could block and ultimately kill a proposed law.

The two-thirds rule served an important democratic (lower case) purpose. It promoted more deliberation, compromise and accommodation in the Senate and helped protect the interests of the political minority, which for many years in Texas were Republicans. It also gave more power to individual senators, sometimes at the expense of the lieutenant governor.

Even before Patrick became lieutenant governor, the two-thirds rule had started to fall victim to increased Senate partisanship. Under Patrick’s predecessor, David Dewhurst, a new Republican majority had occasionally bypassed the two-thirds rule on selected partisan issues, such as redistricting and voter identification bills.

But that wasn’t enough for Patrick, who considers deliberation, compromise and accommodation obstacles to his political and ideological agenda. And Republican senators, who are supposed to have more control over the Senate’s rules than the lieutenant governor, have let Patrick be the boss.

In 2015, GOP senators replaced the two-thirds rule at Patrick’s behest with a three-fifths rule. Republicans had a 20-11 majority that year, and the new rule allowed only 19 Republicans to approve debate on a bill with Democrats unable to stop them.

That 19-vote requirement was all Patrick needed for the next two sessions. Last session, the GOP majority was 19-12. But one Republican senator was unseated by a Democrat in November, so Patrick had the rule changed again this week. With an 18-13 Republican majority now, all it will take is 18 votes to advance a bill. That means if all 18 Republicans are united on a vote to debate a bill, Democrats will be powerless to block it, eroding the democratic process even more.

It is time to stop the real steal, Dan.

Clay Robison

How the Legislature can increase education funding without raising taxes

Cutting school budgets during this legislative session would be almost criminal, considering the heroic work that teachers and support staff have done to keep their students educated, fed and safe during this health crisis.

Even though Comptroller Glenn Hegar has reported revenue losses during the pandemic haven’t been as dire as he earlier predicted, it will be a tough budgetary session, a sharp contrast from two years ago when the Legislature had a budgetary surplus and spent much of it to increase education funding.

But even now, there are ways to avoid cuts to education and even increase school spending without raising taxes. And these don’t include the legalization of casinos or marijuana, potential and controversial revenue sources that will be aggressively promoted by those interests but may very well fall flat.

The first emergency revenue source that lawmakers should tap is the state’s Rainy Day Fund and its $11.6 billion balance. As its name implies, it is for emergencies, and that includes more than hurricanes, tornados and floods. A pandemic is an emergency, and so is the economic upheaval it has caused.

Here are some other revenue-enhancing steps legislators should take:

  • Keep the door closed to private school vouchers.
  • Stop the expansion of corporate charter chains in Texas and their growing bite into the state education budget. Charters are taking about $3 billion a year in tax money, and much of that is ending up in the bank accounts of for-profit management companies.
  • Abolish STAAR testing and the A-F grading system and find a better, fairer way to measure student progress and teacher effectiveness. The state already has signed contracts totaling $338 million with two STAAR vendors for the next four years. The Legislature needs to find a way to cancel them.
  • Legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, must use their influence to convince the members of Congress from Texas to quickly enact President-elect Joe Biden’s education program. For starters, Biden has proposed tripling federal spending for the Title I program, which provides assistance to high-poverty schools, from $15 billion to $45 billion a year. During his campaign, Biden also called for doubling the number of counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers in schools; substantially increasing federal spending for special education; providing more funding for universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-old children; and more funding for school infrastructure improvements. Much of this money could help improve the education budget in Texas.
  • Repeal unnecessary corporate tax breaks. This admittedly is an old proposal, fraught with political dissension, but it is worth considering.

The several billion dollars in additional funding that lawmakers provided in House Bill 3 in 2019 was the biggest increase in education spending in years, but it was only a down payment on improvements to a long-underfunded school finance system. We cannot let the funding gains under House Bill 3 be lost, especially at a time when school districts have shouldered extra expenses and suffered declining attendance during the pandemic.

The Legislature must keep districts fully funded this spring at last year’s levels, despite the attendance losses, and then increase school funding for the next budget period.

Clay Robison

What is “minimal” about 41,000 students and 24,600 school employees contracting COVID?

This headline ran in a Texas newspaper a week after the Thanksgiving break: “COVID spread remains minimal in Texas schools despite state surge.” Minimal, in the writer’s judgment, meant slightly less than 2 percent of those on campuses since schools reopened for the fall had tested positive for the disease.

Minimal, however, would probably not be the first word used by many of the 41,000 students and 24,600 school employees who have contracted the virus – or their families and colleagues. The statistics also don’t include the number of additional cases that may have been generated over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Moreover, the number of reported cases in schools is likely to increase as more districts offer COVID testing. And we don’t know how many students and school staff have had minor or more-serious cases because the state doesn’t keep separate statistics on school-related COVID hospitalizations or deaths.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath, however, must be encouraged by the “minimal” statistics because they continue to bully school districts to keep school buildings open or lose state funding. This means many educators are forced to risk their health and their families’ safety during a deadly pandemic that is worsening.

Abbott and Morath also are doubtlessly encouraged by health experts who say that not all of the reported COVID cases were transmitted on campuses. But that doesn’t mean the number of cases in schools won’t explode after the winter break because, regardless where students or employees contract the virus, they will bring it to school if they don’t stay home.

The governor and the education commissioner don’t have to be on school campuses. Educators do, and there are several reasons for educators to remain concerned.

One is the number of school districts that have abandoned remote learning and require all students to return to campuses for in-person instruction. Fortunately, most of the larger districts continue to offer virtual learning, and that has helped control the rate of COVID transmissions because many schools are not as crowded as they normally would be. But as more schools drop virtual learning, infections in schools may increase, particularly in schools that are not enforcing COVID safety standards and guidelines.

More than 1,100 TSTA members in more than 150 school districts have reported more than 6,000 violations of COVID safety standards. These include violations of the governor’s mask order and social distancing, poor classroom ventilation, inadequate protective equipment and sanitation supplies and personnel policies that discourage school employees who may have been exposed to the virus from staying home to quarantine. They fear cuts in pay and/or loss of jobs.

The governor and the education commissioner ignore the safety violations while they continue to bully school districts into putting students, teachers and other employees at risk during the greatest health crisis of their lifetimes.

COVID spread remains minimal in Texas schools despite state surge

Clay Robison

School finance is unfinished business, especially during a pandemic

House Bill 3, the school finance law enacted by the Legislature in 2019, was well-timed, coming as it did before the deadly and very expensive COVID-19 pandemic struck.

But the additional $11.6 billion in public school funding, including money for teacher pay raises, was only Act I. Even under the best of times, it was only a down payment on improving an inadequate school finance system, and, as you may have noticed, these aren’t the best of times.

Act II, on which the curtain will rise Jan. 12 with the new legislative session, will be a harder sell, but educators must make it.

Greg Abbott is still governor, and the partisan makeup of the Legislature will be largely the same as in 2019, when Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and then-Speaker Dennis Bonnen suddenly discovered public education. Patrick even temporarily set aside his usual No. 1 priority, private school vouchers, to focus on the needs of public schools, after educators had turned out in large numbers in the 2018 election to replace legislative obstacles with 12 new pro-public education House members and two new state senators.

In the recent election, we mostly held our own, but tax revenue losses from the pandemic and perhaps an eruption of partisan mischief will make the upcoming session different.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar has estimated a $4.6 billion revenue shortfall for the current budget period and has warned it may get larger. That means many legislators will be in a mood to cut, even though school districts’ budgetary needs have grown because of the health crisis.

There are alternatives to cuts, including the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s emergency savings account, which the comptroller expects to have a balance of almost $9 billion by the end of this budget period. A lot of additional money also could be raised by closing tax loopholes for an assortment of special interests, a difficult task that nevertheless is long overdue.

Meanwhile, threatening to make the entire legislative session, including a budgetary resolution, even more difficult is an outsider, the new far-right chairman of the Texas Republican Party, who thinks bipartisanship is a bad word and is trying to wreck the session before it even begins.

The new chairman, Allen West, is a refugee from Florida, where voters unseated him after one term in Congress. Texas GOP leaders elected him party chair during their state convention a few months ago, and he already has tried to pick public fights with fellow Republican Gov. Abbott and the Republican who is likely to become the next speaker of the Texas House, Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont.

The day after the election, Phelan announced he had the support of 83 House members, more than the 76 necessary to secure the speakership when the session convenes. Most of his supporters were Republicans, but about 30 were Democrats, and West, who can’t vote for speaker because he isn’t a member of the House, protested.

He called Phelan a “Republican political traitor” and said it was “utterly absurd and demonstrably idiotic” for him to have the support of Democrats in leading a House that has a Republican majority. Never mind that every speaker of both parties has had bipartisan support since Republicans started becoming a force in the House more than 40 years ago.

Many of Phelan’s Republican supporters quickly pushed back against West, and barring a surprise Phelan is likely to be the next speaker.

But it is unknown how much influence West, who is more interested in stirring up divisive hot-button issues than he is in supporting public education, will have on Republican lawmakers as the session progresses. And it is unknown if Dan Patrick, who also likes to push hot buttons, will revert to form and try to cut education funding in favor of privatization or some other divisive scheme.

So, educators, stay tuned. Your influence and frequent communication with your legislators will be critical before the legislative curtain drops late next spring.

Allen West takes sharp-elbowed approach as Texas GOP chair, raising intraparty tension ahead of legislative session

Clay Robison