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Study Examines Effect of Funding Cuts on Texas Schools, Students

AUSTIN  – Funding cuts by state lawmakers left a five-year, $5 billion hole in the budget for Texas public schools between 2011 and 2016.

A new University of Texas study analyzes the effect of those cuts, made because of state revenue shortfalls, which forced many districts to operate with less money despite a growing number of students.

Michael Marder, a professor and co-author of the study at the UTeach Institute at UT, says although state spending is beginning to rebound, there is still a need to deal with the problems caused by the cuts.

“Even if funding returns to previous levels, a five-year period where it was underfunded leaves not just a five-year hole in the budget but a five-year hole in what students learned,” he stresses. “So, they are going to be coming to the system having learned less than they might have otherwise.”

Marder says during that five-year period, the report shows that many districts were forced to cut class size, hire fewer teachers and limit non-core programs such as art, music and computer science.

He says properly funded school districts are better able to attract and retain high quality teachers and provide a wider variety of courses.

Marder points out the research shows that as the state begins to restore funding, the money is not always returned to the same programs to serve the same students.

“Accelerated instruction, which is for students who are struggling and need extra help, went down, particularly in schools with a lot of low-income students,” he explains. “Funding in the schools serving the lowest income students for bilingual education went down by as much as 40 percent.”

Marder says restoring the funding does not always deal with the problems created by the five-year “funding hole.”

“The neediest students may still not be receiving the same level of support they did previously, and I think this is a matter of concern to every citizen of Texas who cares about fellow citizens and the future of the state,” he states.

Marder says the study is the first of its kind to analyze the academic and practical effects of budget cuts on students in Texas school districts.

Author: Mark Richardson – Texas News Service

Analysis: A Storm Brings Distinct Changes in the Political Winds

Politics can change as fast as the weather. Hurricane Harvey proved it.

The breadth of the storm’s effect was evident at this past weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival — three days of on- and off-stage conversations about politics, policy and government. The plans for the gathering were in place well before the storm, but Harvey leaked into almost every subject under discussion.

Heck, the storm might have even bridged the abyss between U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, whose differences kept the two Republicans from endorsing each other in past elections. Cornyn said Sunday that their differences were based more on tactics than on ideology, and said he will, in fact, be supporting the junior senator in next year’s elections. “I think it’s really important, particularly in light of the challenges brought by this huge natural disaster, that we stand together as a Texas delegation and there’s no space between Sen. Cruz and me when it comes to doing work for our state,” Cornyn said.

Nearly everything that would have been on the state’s plate between now and the next scheduled legislative session in 2019 has been marked by the disaster. School finance is dependent on property taxes. More to the point, it’s dependent on taxes on properties that are now worth a lot less than they were four weeks ago. Debates over what should be included and paid for in public and higher education now have to include conversations about how to serve students affected by the storm.

A 2017 legislative debate over insurance — spurred by wind and water claims after previous storms — is now in high relief as insured property owners make their Harvey claims and dicker with insurance adjusters and lawyers.

Prisoners have been moved around. Social services have been stretched. People in government and politics who never think about the weather outside of their own towns are now thinking about it every day at the office, trying to sort through Harvey’s work. Lawmakers who were talking about limiting state spending a few months ago are now scheming about how to tap the state’s $10.3 billion savings account, known popularly as the Rainy Day Fund.

“Harvey has changed everything,” House speaker Joe Straus in a Tribune Festival interview. The issues of the next session, he said, “are going to be overtaken by Mother Nature.”

At another festival event on Saturday, the state’s top finance official — Comptroller Glenn Hegar — talked about Harvey’s effect on state revenue, spending, school finance and the Rainy Day Fund. He said the storm would affect the state’s cash flow, but probably won’t change his official forecast for state revenue over the next two years. He was asked whether the Rainy Day Fund ought to be used  for storm costs. “Absolutely,” he said. “What else would you use it for?”

Several issues that dominated this year’s regular and special sessions of the Legislature look different through the Harvey filter. The biggest — and there was more conversation about this at the Tribune Festival, too — might be the relationship between the state and local governments.

Over the last year, the tension between those two levels of government has escalated. Gov. Greg Abbott has asserted the state’s primacy on a number of fronts, contending uniform state regulations should prevail over what he calls a patchwork of local laws when it comes to issues like texting-while-driving, how fast local taxes can rise, local zoning and permitting rules, and so on.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put a political spin on that debate in a television interview last month: “Our cities are still controlled by Democrats. And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”

The response to Harvey has been locally driven. In the storm’s wake, the Austin antagonists have quieted. The storm probably didn’t change anyone’s ideology, but state officials are listening to the people on the ground, largely taking their cues from the locals. An easy example was the governor’s initial call for a Houston evacuation, quickly countermanded by local officials from both parties. The state backed off.

Abbott’s decision to put Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp in front on the recovery effort diffuses that tension, too; Sharp has been all over Texas politics for the last 30 years, but he’s a non-combatant in the state-local fight. That debate can wait for another day.

The recovery is part of the federal budget, too. It already put most members of the Texas delegation in an awkward spot, as they asked colleagues for aid after voting to deny it to areas hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Four Texans voted against Harvey aid because the legislation triggered a rise in the federal debt ceiling. None live in areas hit by Harvey, but they earned some ire from colleagues who do; U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican whose district extends into Harris County, called those votes “unconscionable.” He’s putting down his markers for coming arguments over federal recovery aid sure to be sought by local and state officials.

The physical damage from the storm is relatively easy to spot, assess and catalog. But it’s becoming more evident that the storm also seeped into every corner of government policy and politics. State leaders who were preoccupied with social and cultural standards and ideas about the role of government a month ago are now bound to more tangible things: Roads, prisons, schools and other buildings, hospitals and shelters.

The winds changed.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The tempestuous president has been trumped by a tempest: Texas politics and government is all about Hurricane Harvey now, and Donald Trump might not be the most important outsider in the state’s 2018 elections after all. [Full story]
  • Hurricane Harvey presents the state of Texas with a set of problems that are bigger than politics, a turn of fortune that could be a political boon to Gov. Greg Abbott. [Full story]
  • The races at the top of the 2018 Republican primary ballot don’t look very competitive. That might be good news for the party’s most conservative down-ballot candidates. [Full story]

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

5 Takeaways From the First Half of the Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott kicked off his first special session two weeks ago. That puts the Legislature at the halfway point if they choose to take the maximum 30 days they are permitted to meet — and given Abbott’s ambitious agenda, it’s looking like they may need all the time they can get.

So far, the special session hasn’t been too different from the 140-day regular session that ended in May. The Senate has rushed to pass nearly all of Abbott’s priorities. The lower chamber has taken its time and even taken some pride in its slower approach.

And the governor has maintained an optimistic tone through it all, even as significant hurdles for his agenda have only become clearer.

Both chambers have addressed the first order of business: passing “sunset” bills that would prevent some state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board. Their failure to agree on such legislation during the regular session was one of the reasons that Abbott called the special session in the first place, and he had specifically asked the Senate to approve the measures before officially expanding his call to include 19 other items.

Here are five things to know about how the first half of the special session has developed:

1. The two chambers are operating at different speeds.

By the eighth day of the special session, the Senate had passed legislation related to all but two of the 20 items on Abbott’s call — a milestone Patrick hailed as unprecedented.

“No one in the Capitol can find anywhere in history that the Senate or the House” has moved that quickly, Patrick said. “It’s quite extraordinary, and I give credit to our Texas senators.”

The House, by contrast, has been taking a much slower approach. While the Senate was celebrating its workload last week, the lower chamber was still working through its first order of business: the “sunset” legislation.

“This is not a race,” Straus has told multiple media outlets, promising the lower chamber would be deliberate in its consideration of each item on the call.

As of Monday evening, the Senate had passed 20 pieces of legislation related to 18 items on Abbott’s call. The House had approved eight bills related to four items.

The Senate still has work to do if it wants to go “20 for 20,” a slogan promoted by Abbott’s office that Patrick and his senators have embraced. The upper chamber has not yet passed legislation to cap local spending or to prevent local governments from changing rules in the middle of construction projects. The bill to address the former, Senate Bill 18, was set to come up on the Senate floor Monday but did not, while the legislation dealing with the latter, Senate Bill 12, remains in the Senate Business & Commerce Committee.

2. The House is charting its own course.

Chafing at the governor’s narrowly proscribed special session agenda on the west side of the Capitol goes beyond House leadership’s vocal opposition to the high-profile “bathroom bill.” Lawmakers there have held hearings on topics not included on the governor’s call, stretched the boundaries of those that are and, in at least one case, directly flouted the governor’s wishes.

During a hearing last week, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, put her reasons for pushing for a bill that would reverse millions of dollars in therapy cuts for children with disabilities this way: “If the governor is going to bring us back here to talk about what bathrooms people can use or what we can do with our trees, then surely the disabled kids should take priority, and hopefully we add this to the call.”

Though the proposal is not on the governor’s list of priorities, lawmakers on the appropriations committee approved it 21-0. Since then, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has officially asked Abbott to include restoring the funding on the special session call.

Davis, who leads the House committee responsible for investigating wrongdoing in state government, also said last week that she would formally request that Abbott put ethics reform on the special session agenda. She said she plans to hold hearings and vote on all of the ethics bills referred to her committee.

Over at the House Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican, heard eight bills on water regulation last week, despite Abbott’s veto of five bills containing similar provisions during the regular session.

When they have considered Abbott’s priorities, House lawmakers have tended to put their own stamp on them. On Monday, the chamber approved House Bill 9, the Abbott-endorsed measure continuing the state’s maternal mortality task force — along with three other items giving the task force more guidance on what to study, including the rates of pregnancy-related deaths and postpartum depression among women of varying socioeconomic status, and adding a labor and delivery nurse to the task force’s membership.

Abbott is also unlikely to welcome a bill the chamber passed regulating city ordinances on tree removal last week, which while technically within the bounds of his special session agenda, replicates legislation he vetoed in June for not going far enough. The version of the legislation championed by Abbott, authored by state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, is stuck in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

The House’s unhurried approach has been met with near daily grumbling on the floor from the 12 lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus, whose conservative members say Straus is deliberately impeding legislation.

“Straus needs to learn you can’t govern by just saying ‘no’ all the time,” said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R- Irving. “I’m frustrated that the speaker has chosen to be the sole obstruction to a number of positive reforms supported by our governor and a clear majority of our legislators.”

3. All signs point to another standoff on “bathroom” legislation.

When it comes to divisive legislation regulating the bathroom use of transgender Texans, the House and Senate are veering close to the same spot they were in at the end of the regular legislative session.

The two chambers ended their 140 days at the Capitol at loggerheads over the issue, with House leaders unwilling to back legislation they said would hurt the state economically and target vulnerable children. After unsuccessfully trying to break the stalemate by taking hostage bills needed to prevent the shutdown of a handful of state agencies, Patrick forced the special session.

Halfway toward the deadline to make an agreement on the bill, the differences between the chambers only appear more prominent.

After plowing through an 11-hour committee hearing and an eight hour-floor debate, the Senate gave final approval to its “bathroom” measure just after midnight last Wednesday. The bill would require transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate or state IDs in schools and buildings overseen by local governments. It would also nix parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms of their choice.

Meanwhile, the House has yet to schedule a committee hearing for similar legislation, and Straus has also held off on referring the Senate’s proposal to a committee for consideration.

State Rep. Byron Cook, the chairman of the committee that the bill must clear to get to the floor, has said he’s disappointed the debate over the bill has wasted so much time — and that it is “smoke-screening” more important issues. But Cook did say the bill will receive a hearing. State Rep. Ron Simmons, the Carrolton Republican carrying the bill, said he believes it will pass the full House if allowed to the floor for a vote. But neither of those statements necessarily adds up to a favorable outcome for the measure in the lower chamber.

Ahead of the special session, Straus said he was “disgusted by all of this” and expressed anxiety about the negative impact such a law could have on transgender children, including possibly an increase in suicides among an already vulnerable population.

Since then, opposition to the bathroom bill has only grown louder in echoing Straus’ concerns. After months of acting through business coalitions, CEOs and top executives for major businesses are attaching their own names to letters expressing hostility toward the legislation, including, on Monday, energy titans Shell and Exxon. Individual school districts have also begun voicing their disapproval of the proposals. Police chiefs from major cities have come out against it and warned they say won’t keep the public safe. And the National Episcopal Church re-emerged in the debate, asking Straus to remain “steadfast” in his opposition to any bathroom bill.

4. Property taxes are at the center of a debate over local control.

In interview after interview, Abbott has made clear he views property tax legislation one of the most important issues — if not the most important issue — lawmakers are taking up during the special session. It may be the only item where Abbott is willing to call lawmakers back to Austin again if they do not show progress on it.

The House and Senate are already closer than they were in the regular session when it comes to coming to an agreement on a proposal to require local governments get voter approval for some increased property tax collections.

But that doesn’t mean the two chambers are completely on the same page. And legislation in the House suggests that its members could be open to giving local officials more breathing room when it comes to how much money they can raise – and how much the state requires them to spend.

Senate Bill 1, which the Senate has already approved, could require cities, counties and some special taxing districts to get voter approval if they want to increase tax collections on existing land and buildings 4 percent compared to the previous year.

House Bill 4 sets the required election threshold at 6 percent. If the full House passes the current version of HB 4, that threshold would be one of many differences the two chambers will have to work out in a conference committee.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee has already sent 17 other bills related to property taxes on to the full chamber. The committee has considered 18 others, which are still pending.

Many of those bills show the lower chamber’s members are trying different ways to cut property tax payments for specific groups of property owners including the elderly, Purple Heart recipients, partially disabled military veterans, Texans serving in the armed forces and disabled first responders.

And while many of Abbott’s agenda items for the special session are aimed at limiting local governments’ powers on everything from spending to regulating trees on private property, one House resolution aims to make the state constitutionally responsible for covering a local government’s cost to comply with new laws.

“If the state requires you to provide some service, then the state needs to have the ability to send the resources to accomplish that goal,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican who co-authored House Joint Resolution 31. “The same way the state complains of the federal government requiring unfunded mandates, I think the same principle should apply to the state also.”

The House passed a similar resolution during the regular session, but it went nowhere in the Senate. Still, Rick Thompson with the Texas Association of Counties is hopeful that the measure could end up on a ballot in November.

Thompson is that group’s legislative liaison. He said HJR 31 is a welcome contradiction to other legislation being discussed this summer since many of the bills collectively tell cities and counties what they can and can’t do while they also limit how much money they can raise and spend without voter approval.

“It’s a tough bill to pass because the state obviously counts on being able to balance their budgets on the backs of unfunded mandates,” Thompson said.

5. The governor isn’t sweating his agenda’s fate — yet.

While Abbott started the special session vowing to publish daily lists of lawmakers who oppose his agenda, he has since dialed back the tough talk and sought to play nice with lawmakers, particularly in the House. He finally released his first batch of lists Friday — but only those of legislators who are supporting bills related to each item on the call.

Abbott also has not expressed any concern about the House’s sluggish pace compared to that of the Senate, saying he is pleased with the lower chamber’s speed and believes its members are taking his agenda seriously. In multiple media appearances, Abbott has voiced confidence in his agenda’s chances in the House, predicting the lower chamber will “outperform.”

At the same time, though, Abbott has resisted calls by House members to expand the call.

“The most important thing is we pass the 20 items that I put on the special session agenda,” Abbott told an Austin TV station Wednesday. “Once we get that done, we can consider other matters.”

“We must go 20 for 20 before we address anything else,” he added.

Abbott has also waved off questions about whether he is willing to call a second special session under any circumstances, saying it is too early to speculate. That could change soon, though, as lawmakers have about two weeks left to send measures to Abbott’s desk.

Alexa Ura, Kirby Wilson and Andy Duehren contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corporation and the Texas Association of Counties have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • State Rep. Sarah Davis will ask Gov. Greg Abbott to put ethics reform on the agenda of the ongoing special session and said focusing on ethics would restore trust in the Legislature at time when it’s diminishing. [link]
  • We’re tracking how lawmakers are progressing on each of the 20 issues Abbott has asked lawmakers to tackle over the special session. [link]

Authors:  PATRICK SVITEKMORGAN SMITH AND BRANDON FORMBY – The Texas Tribune

Texas Business Groups are Banding Together to Keep NAFTA Strong

Despite uncertainty on how the Trump administration will renegotiate the United States’ role in the North American Free Trade Agreement, two-way trade between Texas and Mexico has continued to flourish since the president was sworn in in January.

Now, a number of Texas-based business groups have teamed up to prevent a reversal in that trend by making sure the state has a seat at the table now that Trump has told Congress his administration would begin renegotiating the 23-year-old trade deal between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Representatives from the Texas Association of Business, the El Paso-based Borderplex Alliance and the Texas Business Leadership Council announced on Thursday the creation of the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition, a binational group of business interests that seeks to keep Mexico Texas’ No. 1 trade partner.

Coalition members said time isn’t necessarily on their side if they want to preserve the benefits and job growth NAFTA has brought to Texas and beyond.

“The failure to act swiftly will push us into not only the midterm elections in the United States but also the presidential election in Mexico,” said Eddie Aldrete, senior vice president of the International Bank of Commerce and chairman of the coalition. “So we need to pass NAFTA on its own merits, on its own timeframe.”

Aldrete said that will include working to amend the current agreement instead of overhauling it completely.

Texas has more to lose than any other state on the country’s southern border if NAFTA is reworked in a way that decreases trade between the two countries. From January to April of this year, more than $178 billion in two-way trade has passed through ports in the United States and Mexico, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based economics think tank that uses U.S. Census data to track trade patterns. That figure represents a 4.5 percent increase compared to the same timeframe in 2016.

About $94 billion of 2017’s trade has passed through the Laredo customs district, with another $29.5 billion passing through the El Paso customs district. The ports of Houston and Port Arthur are also in included in Mexico’s top 10 trading partners, ranking fifth with $6 billion and eighth with $1.95 billion, respectively.

Jeff Moseley, the CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said revamping NAFTA only makes sense because of how much industry and commerce has changed since pact went into effect in 1994.

“The document, as it was pulled together 23 years ago, did not contemplate that we would have so much development in technology,” he said. “It didn’t contemplate that the Mexican Constitution would have been amended to allow for energy exploration. So there are new opportunities to bring forward.”

Moseley added he was reassured the federal government would listen to stakeholders on the ground after he met with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who said he’d take a “do-no-harm” approach.

But business leaders are also careful not to assume the United States has complete control over the negotiations. Just last month, Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo said the country could look to expand trade with China if the United States insisted on trade policies that were not mutually beneficial, CNBC reported. The Mexican government could also explore expanding trade with South American countries as another option.

“It’s always a concern. It’s always out there as a potential threat to our economic interest in the United States,” Aldrete said of Guajardo’s comments. Asked if he thought if the Mexican secretary spoke more out of a sense of national pride, Aldrete said it didn’t matter.

“Whatever his motivation was, it certainly got the attention of a lot of people in the business community to then turn around and push our own administration to focus on the timeline and move quickly,” he said. “From a logistical standpoint, Mexico and the United States would prefer to do business with each other.”

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and Texas Business Leadership Council have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • After a trial balloon went over poorly with Congress, Trump told foreign leaders he won’t end the trade agreement just yet. [link]
  • Despite all the time Donald Trump spent bashing NAFTA while running, border leaders hope he’ll soften his stance as campaign trail rhetoric cools. [link]

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

UT/TT Poll: Immigration, Border Security Still Top Concerns for Texas Voters

Immigration and border security continue to top Texas voters’ lists of most important problems, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

About one-third of the voters surveyed listed one of those issues as their top concern, leaving issues like political corruption/leadership, education and health care in the dust.

And a long list of issues from property rights to the environment, transportation to taxes, barely registered.

“Only 6 percent say unemployment or jobs are top of mind,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

He added that kind of rating is often good for the powers that be.

“People are coming to the idea that the Texas economy is good and the national economy is getting better. That, I think is good for the party in power, he said.

Some other responses, however, show “a taste for leadership and reform,” Shaw said.

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Voters’ views of the biggest issues facing the country were somewhat different. More than a quarter listed either political corruption/leadership or national security/terrorism as the most important problem facing the United States, followed by the economy, immigration and health care.

Voters’ relative comfort with the economy shows up in their views of how things are going nationally, for the state and for their families. In all three cases, more voters see improvement over the past year than see things getting worse. More than half said their own economic situation is about the same as it was a year ago. But 42 percent think the national economy is better, and 34 percent think the state economy has improved.

That said, 54 percent of Texas voters said the country is headed off on the wrong track, while 34 percent think things are headed in the right direction. They’re happier with the direction of the state: 43 percent said Texas is on the right track, and 40 percent said it’s on the wrong track.

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The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from June 2 to June 11 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

This is one of several stories on the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Earlier: Texans on President Trump and the Russia inquiries. Coming next week: Texans’ views on issues.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Most voters in the country’s biggest red state are wary of President Donald Trump — but Republican voters remain strongly supportive of him, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. [link]
  • We’ve published several investigations into what happens when border watchdogs turn criminal — from smuggling drugs and immigrants to getting mixed up with Mexican cartels. Revisit our Bordering on Insecurity project. [link]

New Texas Law Enables Comprehensive Rape Kit Reform

AUSTIN — With the passage of a bill establishing a tracking system for evidence in sex assault cases, Texas has become the first state to implement comprehensive rape kit reforms.

There are an estimated 20,000 or more untested rape kits sitting in evidence lockers around the state, but new regulations are aimed at ensuring the backlog is identified and tested, and that new kits are processed without delay.

Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy with the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national advocacy group for rape survivors, said the goal of rape kit reform is to provide justice for those who experience sexual assault.

“Each one of these untested kits represents a survivor who has done everything that society asked them to do, believing and really hoping that the kit will be tested,” Knecht said.

State lawmakers passed House Bill 281 this past session, mandating that the Texas Department of Public Safety track all rape kits from collection to analysis. Knecht said it’s part of what her group calls the “six pillars of reform,” which also include identifying and testing the backlog, processing new kits, notifying victims of results and adequately funding the process.

Donna Howard, a state representative from Austin, sponsored HB 281 along with a dozen bipartisan co-sponsors. She said for assault survivors, the most important part of the bill is that it allows them to keep track of the evidence in their case.

“Because of the horrific nature of this particular crime and the repercussions in terms of not having control over what’s done to your body, having the opportunity to have any control over what’s going on can be very empowering,” Howard observed.

Knecht said it takes not only money to reform the system, but also a recognition of the seriousness of the problem by state lawmakers and law enforcement officials.

“What we have seen across time is that jurisdictions, while they cite the lack of resources and personnel as the largest barrier to processing rape kits, there’s also been an unwillingness to prioritize sexual assault as the serious crime that it is,” she said.

Knecht estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across the country. She said the goal is to pass rape kit reform legislation in all 50 states by 2020.

Annual Report Ranks Texas 41st for Children’s Well-Being

AUSTIN – Texas children are starting their lives near the back of the pack, according to a new report.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 KIDS COUNT Data Book, released Monday, ranks Texas 41st overall in the country for child well-being, and in the bottom half of states in all its individual statistical categories. The annual study examines the condition of children and families the U.S.

Kristie Tingle, policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, says she believes a state with the financial resources and human capital that Texas has can do much better.

“‘Bottom 10’ definitely isn’t good enough for Texas – we need to be better,” says Tingle. “Every child in Texas should be healthy, well-educated and financially secure, and with the correct division of resources we can get there. But what we’re seeing is that the state isn’t investing in what our children need.”

In the report’s individual categories, Texas was ranked 30th in education, 32nd in economic well-being and 39th in health. Tingle says state lawmakers are failing to invest in Texas children. She says the state also ranks near the bottom for its investment in child protective services, and that lawmakers failed to properly fund pre-Kindergarten programs.

In her view, the KIDS COUNT Data Book contains vital information for anyone who analyzes or makes policy affecting children in the state.

“What we’re seeing in the family and community domain is that we’re actually 47th, nearly last. And in the health domain, we’re second to last in the percentage of children who lack health-insurance coverage,” she says. “So, these are really tangible things that this is measuring.”

The Casey Foundation’s Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy, agrees.

“We’ve been tracking these measures for more than 25 years because we believe in the importance of really getting a clear, unbiased measure of child well-being over time,” Speer explains. “We want folks to use this information to make good decisions, so that we can maintain the gains that we’ve been able to achieve.”

Speer urges lawmakers to invest in what works for kids.

Author: Mark Richardson – Texas News Service

Despite High Expectations for 2016, No Surge in Texas Hispanic Voter Turnout

Turnout among Texas Hispanics eligible to vote rose slightly in the 2016 presidential elections compared to four years earlier, according to newly released U.S. Census data.

There were high hopes that this would be the year.

Amid Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks about Hispanics and on-the-ground voter engagement efforts, election watchers prognosticated that 2016 could usher in a surge of Hispanic voters in Texas.

But now that the excitement around the 2016 election has quieted, the surge appears to have been more of a trickle.

Turnout among Texas Hispanics eligible to vote — citizens 18 and older — in 2016 slightly improved, increasing to 40.5 percent from 38.8 percent during the 2012 presidential election, according to U.S. Census data released Wednesday. The small increase is a discouraging sign for those who expected a spike in Hispanic turnout.

Instead, turnout among Hispanic Texans during presidential elections continued its slow, steady increase since 2008, mostly in line with population growth and possibly more Hispanic Texans turning of age to vote. But last year’s turnout is still lower than turnout in the 2004 presidential election.

trib elex 16

Only black and Asian Texans saw significant changes in turnout compared to the last presidential election. Considering those eligible to vote, black turnout dropped from 63.1 percent in 2012 to 57.2 percent last year. Meanwhile, turnout among Asians — a small sliver of both the state’s overall population and the electorate — jumped up from 42.4 percent to 47.3 percent.

For Asian voters, that surge translated into an increase of 124,000 more votes in 2016, a larger increase than what Hispanic voters showed, according to the Census data. Compared to 2012, Hispanics only cast about 48,000 more votes in the 2016 election. White Texans, meanwhile, increased their total number of ballots cast by about 818,000 votes.

Asian voters, in particular, were credited for helping flip the reliably-Republican Fort Bend County into the Democrats’ column in 2016. The Asian share of the population in that suburban enclave southwest of Houston is four times as high as their share statewide.

trib elex 16 2

Soon after the election, there were signs that a spike in Hispanic turnout didn’t materialize when counties with a larger percentage of Hispanic adults than the state’s average saw little overall change in voter turnout. (Texas doesn’t track voters by race and ethnicity so there is no way of telling from the state’s data how much of that turnout was made up by Hispanic voters.)

Some had also pinned their hopes for improved participation among Hispanics on sweeping Democratic victories in places like Harris County where number crunchers indicated that an increase in Hispanics voters were, in part, behind those wins. But the Census numbers suggest that didn’t translate to a significant statewide increase.

The Census estimates offer the first glimpse at a breakdown of turnout by race and ethnicity in the November election at a time when Hispanic turnout was highly anticipated to swell. But election watchers probably shouldn’t take much stock in what the 2016 numbers could mean for the upcoming midterm elections — Texas’ dismal voter turnout is even worse during non-presidential years.

Author:  ALEXA URA AND RYAN MURPHY – The Texas Tribune

State Senator Jose Rodríguez’s Issues Statement on SB 4

Austin – Senator José Rodríguez, Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, released the following statement regarding SB 4, which coerces local police to carry out federal immigration law:

SB 4 is an attack on Hispanics and the immigrant community. In a sad irony, a bill purportedly about public safety and the rule of law makes us less safe and erodes confidence in the justice system by disregarding constitutional due process protections and separation of powers.

Some facts about SB 4:

It was made clear when the bill passed the Senate, and again made clear in debate today in the House, that there are significant legal issues with SB 4.

  • El Paso County is under a settlement entered in federal court in 2006 that prohibits the county from enforcing civil immigration law. The settlement resulted from traffic checkpoints set up by the El Paso Sheriff’s Department in which it was alleged deputies conducted unlawful searches, seizures and detentions. Should SB 4 become law in its current form, it’s virtually certain to result in a costly lawsuit for El Paso County, which must choose between a federal settlement agreement and compliance with this new state law.
  • Texas cannot eliminate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure:

o   An ICE request to county jails to detain a person must be based on probable cause that the person is violating immigration law.

o   But these detainers are not issued by an independent judge who reviews them for probable cause. They are issued by immigration officers.

o   Federal courts in other jurisdictions have already held that a county’s compliance with voluntary immigration detainers violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

  • SB4 coerces local governments:

o   Creates a separate criminal offense under state law for failure to comply with the bill, making local officials personally liable for performance of each and every law officer working in their jurisdiction.

o   Subjects local entities to Attorney General lawsuits originating from public complaints that may have no merit, eroding community relations and creating unnecessary expense.

o   Singles out the enforcement authority of University Campus police to target students that may be DREAMers or DACA recipients.

Texas Lawmakers Might let Community Colleges offer Bachelors’ Degrees

Community college has long been a popular place to start working toward a bachelor’s degree. Soon, it may become a place to finish one, too.

College administrators across the state are hoping to convince Texas lawmakers to authorize them to begin offering four-year degrees in a limited number of fields. It’s a goal they have been working toward for years, and this year chances are stronger than ever that they’ll succeed because powerful members of the House and Senate appear to support the idea.

Right now, just three schools have that right — South Texas College, Midland College and Brazosport College. But more than a dozen lawmakers have filed bills that would let some or all schools in the state add four-year programs.

“There is definitely an appetite in the House,” said Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.

The same is true in the upper chamber, where Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is one of the lawmakers who have filed a bill. In past years, he said he’s been skeptical of the idea.

Supporters say the bills would increase the number of students who earn a four-year degree in the state and would help Texas ease worker shortages in skilled industries like nursing, applied technology, applied science and early childhood education.

In nursing, for example, there’s a widespread shortage of qualified candidates. Making matters worse, nearly 40 percent of registered nurses in Texas are 54 years old or older. The Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies predicts that the state will be 60,000 nurses short of demand by 2030.

Steve Head, chancellor of Lone Star College, which has campuses around the Houston area, said his school would be excited to help shrink that number — and do it in a way that’s affordable.

“We have the necessary facilities and faculty in place today to help address the industry shortage needs,” he said.

But not everyone is on board.

A 2014 study commissioned by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board found reticence from many in the higher education community. Skeptics worried that it would result in mission creep at two-year schools, spark more competition between universities and community colleges and increase costs at two-year schools.

The Texas Nurses Association has been skeptical, too, saying in advance of this year’s legislative session that it needs to see more evidence that bachelor’s degree programs work at community colleges before its supports the idea.

“What we want to make sure of is, no matter who offers a nursing program, that the nursing program is accredited and it is going to help the nursing profession one way or another,” said Andrew Cates, director of government affairs for the association.

But many lawmakers have come around to doing it in a limited way. Seliger’s bill, a companion of which was filed in the House by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, would limit each college to three baccalaureate degree programs. Those programs could only be in fields of nursing, applied technology and applied science.

Other bills offer variations in the number and types of degrees offered. Both higher education committee chairmen said they expect to begin holding hearings on the ideas in the next week or two — and that they are hopeful to find a solution.

“It should not break the academic model or the economic model of community colleges,” Seliger said.

Disclosure: Lone Star College has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

Author:  MATTHEW WATKINS – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: One (Texas) Official to Rule Them All

In the old days — we’re talking way back, in the pre-2015 era — every mayor in the United States of America wanted to be governor and then president and then the face on a nickel or a dime or a two-dollar bill.

Maybe the office of governor should be the end game for every lowly politician who looks at the mirror in the morning and sees a superstar smiling back. Greg Abbott seems to be arguing for a consolidation of political power, what with his goal of moving federal power to the states and with his strong new pitch to make him a sort of mayor-in-chief of all the cities, towns, settlements and camps in the state.

This is not the “United States of Municipalities,” Abbott told a crowd last week in Fort Worth.

“It would be far simpler and frankly easier for those of you who have to run your lives and businesses on a daily basis if the state of Texas adopted an overriding policy and that is to create certain standards that must be met before which local municipalities or counties can establish new regulations,” he said, characterizing his proposal as a “broad-based ban on regulations at the local level unless and until certain standards are met.”

(Note to the governor’s speechwriting scribes: Just spit-balling here, but shouldn’t that line have been “United Municipalities of America?”)

Maybe it’s time to hold a convention to change the Texas Constitution. Abbott wants the states to take a blue pencil to the nationaltxtribu43 document with the aim of diluting federal power in favor of the states. It’s a tall order; he could convene Texans more easily and get all the power a governor can handle — or more.

The governor could take charge of all the fun stuff mayors do: potholes, garbage and police and fire contracts. Don’t forget all those parades.

He could get his hands dirty with planning and zoning boards or burn his fingers telling someone in Houston why they can’t build a house between a water tower and a convenience store. He could regulate restaurants, taking charge of salmonella and hair nets and slime in the ice machines.

It would be a blast to run all those county jails, and putting local control in one office in Austin would make it much easier to move money from places where it’s abundant to places where it’s needed — the better to run every jail, every road project, every police department the same way and up to the same standard.

The guv could be the boss of the property taxes every Texan hates — especially if he rejiggered the system and took control of public schools in addition to counties, cities, municipal utility districts, public utility districts, hospital districts and all of the other annoying government entities that want us to pay enough attention to elect officials and pretend to exercise control over the way we’re governed.

If voting isn’t going to matter — or if the Wizard of Austin is going to overrule local decisions he doesn’t agree with no matter what the locals think — we might as well take the weed eater to those long November ballots.

Imagine how many election decisions we could dump. Who knows who’s on the community college board anyway? Voters wouldn’t have to say they don’t want plastic bags or fracking or ride-hailing drivers who haven’t passed criminal background checks. The folks in Austin could decide whether to build zillion-dollar stadiums for high school football.

Put all the power in one seat — under the parental gaze of a single, elected wise person who knows best. It’s so obvious, once you think of it, you wonder why the founders didn’t design government this way.

Fifty provincial viceroys each running a laboratory of democracy, each in charge of who uses which bathroom, where the bus lanes and the bike lanes go, whether there are gondolas and high-speed trains for mass transit, who grows hash and who makes hooch and who sells those intoxicants, whether there are lotteries, who gets deported and who gets taxed and how and whether it’s okay to park for free downtown after 6 p.m.

The governor of Texas could decide how tall your neighbor’s grass can grow before there’s a fine or whether the utility company could take a chainsaw to the overgrown hedge in the front yard: In turn, we’d finally have uniform city ordinances on vegetation across the state instead of a confusing patchwork of gardening laws.

He wouldn’t have to stop his campaign to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. His goals there are ambitious attempts to make sure that the state is on the handle end of the leash that leads to Washington, D.C.

What if Congress couldn’t regulate an activity that never crosses state lines? What if executive branch agencies couldn’t make regulations overruling state regulations (which means states could make regulations to overturn federal regulations)? What if two-thirds of the states could overturn Supreme Court rulings, or overrule Congress? What if it took seven Supreme Court justices instead of just five to declare a law unconstitutional?

Those items are in Abbott’s proposal for a convention of states. Combine it with the governor’s desire to corral the locals, and you have the makings of a pretty powerful central government in the state capital.

Abbott’s right about the laws here, by the way. That’s not surprising, as he’s a former judge and he’s been a lawyer for a lot longer than he’s been an executive. The states are entitled to keep the powers that aren’t expressly assigned to the big dogs in Washington; that tension between the feds and the states is baked into the cake. Cities and the counties are creations of the state, as Abbott says, and they do get a little big for their britches.

So do those ambitious provincial viceroys.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The denizens of the Texas Capitol are already talking about the possibility of a special session if lawmakers haven’t finished the budget and other bills by Memorial Day. They might be worried, but you shouldn’t be.
  • The Texas Senate is proposing a new accounting trick to balance its 2018-19 budget. The contrivance would work, mathematically speaking, but it raises constitutional questions and faces derision from the House.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott has hit tough sledding with his call for more spending on early education in Texas. Lawmakers aren’t warm to the idea, to say the least, and the governor hasn’t assembled an army of supporters to back up his position.

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

Poll: Texans, Others Oppose Bill to Limit Malpractice Lawsuits

AUSTIN – Voters in Texas and several other key red states are overwhelmingly opposed to a bill in Congress that would limit a patient’s ability to sue for medical malpractice.

A survey from Public Policy Polling says 70 percent of Texas voters disapprove of House Resolution 1215, which would negate state malpractice laws.

Linda Lipsen, CEO of the American Association for Justice, says the measure puts the interests of health care providers ahead of patients. And she says the motives behind the bill are transparent.

“While there’s always a bunch of reasons – sometimes it’s insurance rates are too high, sometimes it’s something to do with a litigation crisis – this is really just about depriving people of the right to remedy by pursuing their remedy in court,” she states.

The bill also would limit the amount an injured patient and his or her attorney could recover in a lawsuit and shortens the deadline for filing malpractice suits.

Supporters of HR 1215, sponsored by Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, say its purpose is to discourage frivolous lawsuits and reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance.

Jim Williams, an issue specialist with Public Policy Polling, which conducted the survey in Texas and six other states, says he found opposition to the bill from across the political spectrum.

“That coalition of opposition includes majorities and pluralities of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, both men and women,” he points out. “And voters in all three of the age groups that we polled.”

Lipsen says supporters of the bill are likely to find hostile voters back in their districts.

“If they thought that the health care bill was toxic, then this is even more so, because this is Congress telling states what they think a life is worth, at $250,000,” she stresses. “That’s certainly not why people went to the polls.”

The bill was set for consideration in the U.S. House last Friday, but was pulled off the calendar. Another vote is expected in the coming weeks.

Author:  Mark Richardson – Public News Service

House Panel hears Bills for Open Carry Without Permit

Two measures that would make it easier for Texans to access guns were up for consideration by the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

House Bill 375 by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, would allow Texans to openly carry a handgun with or without a license, making it optional for people in the state to obtain a permit or take a class. Stickland filed the same bill in 2015, but it was never heard in committee.

“I don’t think the government has the right to say, ‘You have a Second Amendment right, but only if you take this class and pay this fee,’” Stickland said as he laid out his bill. “If someone can legally possess a firearm, they should be able to carry that firearm.”

More than 300 people signed up to testify on the bill, including several law enforcement officers who took issue with a provision that would prevent them from stopping a person carrying a handgun.

“When someone calls and says, ‘Hey, there’s a mysterious person with a weapon,’ [HB 375] as written would not let us address that,” said Houston Police Lt. Jessica Anderson.

Testifying on behalf of her department, Anderson said law enforcement had a responsibility to oppose the legislation because the bill would make it harder to do an already challenging job.

“Our biggest message is that the current law is working — let’s not mess with it just yet,” Anderson said, referring to Texas recently becoming the 45th state to allow Texans to openly carry handguns in a hip or shoulder holster, provided they have a permit.

The committee’s vice chairman, state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, agreed with Anderson and said without a license to carry, law enforcement would not easily be able to separate criminals with guns from licensed gun owners in public.

Committee member Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, a joint author of HB 375 and a veteran, said he had seen freedom lost “at the point of a gun” during his time in Afghanistan.

“Many times, the gun is the difference between freedom and not,” he said. “The Second Amendment was written to protect us against a tyrannical government.”

At the beginning of the hearing, proponents brought in boxes they said contained more than 70,000 signatures in support of the bill. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, chairman of the committee, commended the groups and said the boxes “made a good point.”

Some testimony touched on religious freedom. Radio host Don Green warned legislators not to “stand between me and Jesus Christ when he commands me to defend myself. Grant me my God-given rights to defend my family and my friends in any manner I can afford to do so.”

Andrea Brauer with Texas Gun Sense said it was impossible for anyone to know where God stands on HB 375. Brauer said people bringing religion into the open carry debate are “not arguing that [HB 375] is good policy — they’re just saying, ‘It’s my right and I want it now.’”

The second bill, House Bill 1911 by state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, would allow people without a license to openly carry where current license holders carry, with the exception of college campuses in the state.

In laying out his bill Tuesday, White pointed out that Texans are currently allowed to openly carry long arm rifles or keep a gun in the glovebox of their car under state law. He said HB 1911 would simplify state statute by creating a “single class of law-abiding Texans.”

The option to retain an open carry license would remain under HB 1911, White said.

According to estimates from the Legislative Budget Board, HB 375 and HB 1911 would cost the state more than $37 million each if passed into law. And while neither bill would eliminate the license-to-carry program, the board predicted applications for a license and renewal to carry would decline by 90 percent in fiscal year 2018.

HB 375 and HB 1911 don’t have companion legislation in the Senate, but state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said in a statement March 27 he was “eagerly awaiting” the chance to sponsor “constitutional carry” legislation in the upper chamber, adding there was “no bigger or better way to advance liberty this session.”

The House committee approved additional gun-related measures Tuesday morning, including one that would allow emergency first responders to carry a handgun while on the job, and another — whose companion legislation was voted out of the Senate Monday — that would lower license to carry fees.

Both bills were left pending in committee Tuesday evening.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • On Monday, the upper chamber gave final passage to Senate Bill 16, which would reduce the first-time fee for a license to carry from $140 to $40 and the annual renewal fee from $70 to $40.
  • House Bill 375 would give all Texans the right to openly carry a firearm — with or without a permit. If passed, Texas would be the 11th state to allow “constitutional carry.”

Author: CASSANDRA POLLOCK – The Texas Tribune

Texas Senators Weigh Bills that Would Limit College Tuition Growth

Ever since the Texas Legislature gave public universities the right set their own tuition in 2003, there have been attempts by lawmakers to revoke it.

On Wednesday, the Texas Senate began working on this year’s try. The Senate Higher Education Committee considered five bills that would halt, limit or slow tuition increases in the coming years.

Each one’s aim, their authors said, is to get control of fast-rising college costs. Average tuition and fees at public universities have climbed 148 percent in the past 15 years.

Each of the bills — some are written by Democrats, some by Republicans — has a unique plan to address affordability. Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said after the meeting that only one will probably make it through the committee.

“I see no way that you could have two of these in effect,” he said.

No winner was picked Wednesday, however. A vote could come in as soon as a week.

“Something, I think, will probably pass this time,” Seliger said.

Here are the choices the committee is considering:

Performance-based tuition increases:

Seliger’s favorite appears to be Senate Bill 543, which is no surprise as he is the senator who wrote it. The bill would allow universities to raise their tuition only if they meet six of 11 performance metrics set by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Those metrics would touch on schools’ administrative costs, graduation rates and the number of degrees awarded. It’s a slight twist on a coordinating board call for performance-based funding, which would tie state funding to performance metrics.

Tuition increases allowed under the plan would be limited to 1 percent for the first two years, and then 3 percent plus inflation after that.

University leaders appeared most open to that idea, though they asked lawmakers for a role in writing the rules. Texas Tech University System Chancellor Robert Duncan called it an “innovative approach.”

But the concept has drawn skepticism from some higher-education leaders, who have questioned whether tuition increases should be considered an award for good performance. The idea has the interest of some influential lawmakers. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2015, only to die in the House. The chairman of the House Higher Education Committee at the time, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, has since expressed regret that the lower chamber didn’t look more closely at it.

Early in the current session, Zerwas said he’d like another chance to consider the idea. Since then, however, he has transitioned to lead the House Appropriations Committee. The new House Higher Education Committee chairman, state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, hasn’t publicly weighed in on what the legislature’s role should be in limiting tuition issues.

Seliger was optimistic about its future after Wednesday’s meeting.

“Clearly, the performance-based tuition increase passed last time, and it probably seems to have the broadest appeal both to legislators and institutions,” he said.

Ban tuition increases until 2022:

Another bill by Seliger, Senate Bill 19, will likely get strong consideration, too. It would force universities to charge no more in tuition and fees than they do now for four consecutive school years beginning in the fall of 2018.

Schools could technically increase tuition for next year, but they would then have to lower it back down the year after. It also has the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who listed it among his top 25 priorities in the current legislative session.

It’s unclear how the proposal would fare in the House, however, where attempts to freeze tuition have been greeted less favorably in the past.

Ban increases without student or legislative permission:

State Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown and José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, are leaving the door open to future tuition increases, but only with permission. Schwertner, who is perhaps the most outspoken critic of high tuition in the Senate, has proposed a law that would ban tuition increases for one year, and cap them at the rate of inflation after that. He said Wednesday that student fee increases would have to be approved by a student election. Rodriguez’s billwould simply prevent schools from setting tuition at a higher rate than what they charge for 2017-18, unless the Legislature approves it.

Those ideas might be worrisome to universities, which have argued that one of the main reasons they have raised tuition in recent years is to make up for the shrinking per-student state support for higher education. What’s more, universities could be hit with big state funding cuts this year. If it were tougher for those schools to raise tuition, officials there would be limited in the ways they could make up that money.

“Our concern from the University of Houston is that the tuition freezes and limits being imposed might actually hurt the students that they are meant to help,” said UH Chancellor Renu Khator, explaining that an inability to raise revenue through tuition increases might prevent the school from hiring faculty, career advisers and mental health counselors.

Similar bills have been filed in the past, including by Schwertner, but have failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

Only allow tuition increases when state funding falls:

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has proposed a solution that acknowledges university leaders’ concerns. Under Senate Bill 1323, universities would be banned from raising tuition except to “to make up any difference between core operational costs and state formula funding appropriations.” The bill would require the state’s Legislative Budget Board to review universities’ core costs every two years, and then require universities to come up with detailed plans to reduce those costs by 5 percent.

Zaffirini noted that basically the same bill passed the Senate in 2009 but that she wasn’t hopeful for 2017.

“If I thought the bill were going anywhere, I’d have” a few changes to make to it, she told the committee.

Read more about higher education in the Texas Tribune:

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Author:  MATTHEW WATKINS – The Texas Tribune

Texas Lawmakers Push for National Constitutional Convention

AUSTIN, Texas – Texas is among a growing list of states to consider seeking a convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The Texas Senate, acting on a call by Gov. Greg Abbott, has approved a measure for a convention of states that would shorten the usual process of Congress approving amendments for the states to ratify. The idea now is pending before the Texas House, which has yet to act.

Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas School of Law, says legislators are using a little-known part of the constitution to try to make major changes.

“If you ask most people how to get constitutional amendments, they’ll say through Congress,” he said. “But Article V does very, very clearly set out this alternative procedure called a constitutional convention, and it’s never been done.”

Levinson says Article V contains no guidelines on how to conduct a convention, and that has legal scholars and others deeply concerned. Most backers are pushing for an amendment to balance the federal budget, but other issues could be considered.

Others wonder if a convention should include lobbying interests in the process, and whether each state would get a vote or representation would be proportional to the population.

Elaine Wiant, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says she is worried that the whole thing could quickly spin out of control.

“Because there aren’t any rules and once you call a convention, there can be rules but the rules can be changed by the delegates, so that is a concern,” she explained.

Levinson says while legal scholars might debate the pros and cons of holding a convention, he thinks there may be a practical reason why it’s just not a good idea.

“We’re just too divided, so that the most likely consequence of a convention, from this perspective, is simply a lot of shouting at one another and nothing happening,” he added.

A constitutional convention needs 34 states, a two-thirds majority, to sign on. In recent years, about 15 states have passed such legislation. Proposed amendments must be ratified by at least 38 states. The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1787.

Author: Mark Richardson – Texas News Service

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