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Highlights from in and around the world of Texas politics

 

 

(AP) – As the Texas legislative session came to a close as of Monday’s final adjournment, lawmakers worked to resolve lingering issues. The following is a look at how the laws will affect education, voting, the justice system and air space.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez D-El Paso center stands with other Texas legislators and civil rights representatives (Photo credit Eric Gay)

Voucher plan for schools

The Texas Senate voted Monday to attach a modest voucher plan to a sweeping, bipartisan school finance bill that already cleared the House – potentially dooming an effort to pump an extra $1.6 billion into classrooms and begin overhauling the troubled way the state pays for public education.

Republicans control both chambers of the Texas Legislature, but the Senate has for years advanced voucher plans seeking to offer public money to students attending private and religious schools, only to have such proposals repeatedly and resoundingly defeated in the House.

Another such showdown is likely looming, and the end result could be Texas getting neither vouchers nor important fixes to the state’s “Robin Hood” system, under which school districts in wealthy areas share local property tax revenue they collect with those in poorer parts of the state.

The original House plan sought to increase annual per-student funding about $210 to $5,350, while raising funding for school district transportation and educating dyslexic students – increasing total spending by $1.6 billion.

The version the Senate approved after midnight increases classroom funding by only about $500 million, scraps the $210 per-student increase and adds a plan offering taxpayer funds that would go into education savings accounts that some special education students could use to attend private schools.

“This is only for those situations where parents really are unhappy with what’s going on with their special-needs child,” said its sponsor, Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican.

Taylor said only about 6,000 students maximum would likely qualify to start. But critics note that voucher plans that begin modestly in other states often grew at break-neck speed.

“This is like the camel with its nose under the tent,” said Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West, who called the education savings account plan “the voucher, that’s what it’s commonly referred to.”

“Call it what you will,” Taylor replied.

The House is expected to reject Senate changes. That would send the bill to conference committee, where differences will have to be reconciled before the legislative session ends next week.

House education leaders have indicated that vouchers in any form are non-starters – but the stakes are rising since the Senate’s changes may now mean fully sacrificing a major school finance bill.

Rep. Dan Huberty, a Republican from Houston who is chairman of the powerful House Public Education Committee and spent months working on the original school finance overhaul, said he was still studying what the Senate approved overnight and hadn’t fully made up his mind – but also indicated he’s far from optimistic about his proposal’s future.

“I’m not certain that we’re going home with anything,” Huberty said on the House floor late Monday afternoon.

Texas educates around 5.3 million public school students, more than any state except California, but has endured decades of legal battles, with the Legislature frequently cutting classroom budgets so deeply that school districts sue. No school finance changes are legally required this session because Texas’ Supreme Court ruled last summer that the system was flawed but minimally constitutional.

Still, supporters of the House plan had called it an important first step toward more-complete school finance reform that will take many years. The Senate proposal preserves much of that work, but, as Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez of San Antonio noted of vouchers during Monday’s debate: “This one particular topic might tank the whole thing.”

Even Taylor conceded that many in Texas think “the whole world is coming to an end over that little bitty thing.”

Textbook policy sparks concerns

The often-combative Texas Board of Education would expand its ability to reject textbooks it doesn’t like, rolling back limits that have been in place for more than two decades, under a proposal on the verge of clearing the state Legislature.

Some fear the bill’s benign language would, intentionally or not, return broad influence to a veteran bloc of social conservatives on the 15-member elected board. That same bloc previously has attempted to de-emphasize lessons on evolution and climate change and insists that publishers edit classroom materials to better conform to Republican ideology.

How impactful is the textbook market in Texas? Large enough that changes made for the state can affect what’s taught nationwide, though modern, electronic classroom materials have made it easier to tailor lessons to individual states and school districts – thus diluting the board’s national influence some in recent years.

The board’s ability to influence what gets published in textbooks – even sometimes line-editing materials to remove things its members didn’t like – was far greater before 1995. That year, the Texas Legislature passed an omnibus education bill that included limits that allow the board only to reject textbooks with factual errors or material that doesn’t conform to Texas curriculum standards for what is taught to about 5.3 million public-school students.

Texas school districts – more than 1,000 in number – don’t have to use board-approved textbooks, but most do.

Some say a bill already approved by the Texas Senate and scheduled for a state House vote Tuesday would return sweeping influence to the board. The proposal would require that all materials on the Board of Education’s instructional list be “suitable for the subject and grade level” for which it was submitted. That seems relatively tame, but classroom advocates say it is subjective enough to force wholesale textbook rewrites.

“Board members will take this bill as an open invitation to return to the days of almost unrestrained bullying of publishers to change or censor textbook content for purely political reasons,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group and frequent board critic. “The board will become an even bigger political circus than it has been.”

The proposal’s sponsor, Sen. Kel Seliger, doesn’t see it as a broad expansion of power, however.

“There’s been a lot of weirdness, but as it’s described in the bill, it’s about age and grade appropriateness and things like that,” said Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo. “The culture wars won’t be played out in legislation.”

But Seliger also acknowledged that the proposed changes could have unintended consequences. “Absolutely there will be factions that try to stretch and look for things like ideological purity.”

Republicans push to weaken voter ID law

The GOP-controlled Texas Legislature has approved a weakened voter ID law and sent it to Gov. Greg Abbott after a judge twice ruled that the original version deliberately tried to suppress minority voters.

The changes given final approval Sunday expanded the list of acceptable IDs first devised in the original 2011 law to include passport cards and recently expired identifications. Still, gun licenses remain acceptable while college IDs aren’t.

The new law would let people without an ID cast a ballot by signing an affidavit. But anyone lying on affidavits could be charged with a felony.

In April, a federal judge reaffirmed that the original law intentionally discriminated. Democrats now want the judge to force Texas to get federal permission before changing election laws under the Voting Rights Act.

It would make Texas the first state under federal oversight since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Fines approved for police not reporting civilian killings

The Texas Senate has approved a bill seeking new accountability standards for police departments reporting when an officer kills a civilian – sending it to the governor.

Senators passed the measure by Rep. Eric Johnson 28-3 May 23. Earlier this month, the House first defeated the bill 71-70, but then moved to reconsider and easily approved it.

Johnson’s proposal creates a civil penalty for law enforcement agencies that fail to report officer-related deaths or injuries. Abbott can either sign or veto it, or let it automatically become law.

Law enforcement is already required to submit reports about officer-related deaths, but the bill would impose fines for failure to do so.

In a statement, Johnson said, “Texas can lead the nation in reducing fatal encounters involving law enforcement.”

Texas poised to make offenses against police hate crimes

Texas is moving closer to making offenses against police officers punishable as hate crimes.

The state Senate passed 30-1 on Tuesday a bill adding law enforcement agents to the list of groups targeted by bias or prejudice. Hate crimes against officers would include arson, criminal mischief, graffiti, unlawful restraint, assault and threats.

The proposal would increase penalties for any offenses committed against on-duty officers. It’s designed to create an environment of respect for law enforcement and to prevent future acts of violence against them – especially following a sniper attack that killed five Dallas police officers last summer.

The bill previously passed the state House. Gov. Greg Abbott has been a vocal supporter.

Still, opponents have argued that hate crimes should apply to individuals’ innate identities, rather than their occupations.

`Second-Chance’ Bill

The Texas Legislature is moving closer to approving a bipartisan law letting some first-time, low-level offenders seal their criminal records – keeping them from being made public when doing things like applying for jobs.

The so-called “second-chance” bill previously cleared the House and was passed Monday by the Senate. It included an amendment ensuring that Texans convicted of some crimes involving sex or violence wouldn’t be eligible.

It now heads back to the House, which can send it to Gov. Greg Abbott if the chamber accepts the Senate changes. Abbott can sign or veto the measure, or let it become law automatically.

People convicted of some felonies involving small amounts of marijuana, and some drunk-driving offenses, are among those who can petition to keep their records secret.

Drone restrictions

Drone flights could soon face new restrictions in Texas.

The state Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to ban drones over sports arenas and jails.

The measure makes flying a drone intentionally over a stadium or correctional facility punishable by up to six months in jail. Multiple infractions may mean up to a year behind bars.

The regulation is designed to protect the public from weapons that drones could possibly carry and prevent drones from sneaking drugs or contraband to inmates.

But opponents say the federal – not state – government is responsible for with overseeing air space. They worry the bill could stifle the booming drone industry.

The legislation now returns to the House, which previously passed the measure banning all, not only intentional, drone flights over such facilities.

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