Panel considers extending school hold-harmless funding

By Richard Lee
For the Fort Bend Star

A program to keep school districts from losing money under the 2006 school finance reform plan is scheduled to end this year, but a bill before the Senate Education Committee Tuesday would extend that deadline to 2023.

The Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR, fund was intended to be a temporary stopgap for districts that would’ve lost money when the state capped local school property taxes, but bill author and Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst said that there are still hundreds of school districts that depend on the money.

“Many school districts were able to grow out of that, but there are some that still remain in,” she said. “The arbitrary number of 2017 as it sunsets…I’m not sure it was scientific, it just gave a cliff and said that most of the school districts should’ve grown out of this.”

The Legislature has tweaked ASATR twice since 2006 and in 2011 added a sunset provision, setting the program to expire on Sept. 1, 2017. It was hoped that eventually all school districts would see enough revenue growth through increases in property value that the program would be unnecessary. Kolkhorst told members, however, that up to 227 districts could be eligible for ASATR funds next year.

Some get a small proportion of their total budget from the fund and could manage the potential loss. Others, such Grand Saline ISD in northeast Texas, get more than a third of their day-to-day operation funding from the program and could face steep cuts.

“We are one of those that will probably never get out of ASATR,” said Micah Lewis, Superintendent for Grand Saline ISD in testimony before the committee. “We’re going to lose roughly a little over a million dollars if something is not done. By the numbers, we’d have to cut about 20 teachers and we don’t have 20 teachers to cut.”

The bill, SB 419, would cost the state an additional $400 million over the next two years, money that isn’t set aside in the Senate version of the state budget. It remains pending before the committee.

High speed rail

In session Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill the author says will protect taxpayers from picking up the bill for a proposed privately-funded high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner, whose Senate District 5 lies in the center of the proposed route, has been a prominent critic of the rail project and wants to make sure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook if the project fails.

His bill, SB 977, would prohibit any state money from going toward construction or maintenance of the program. It would continue to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to work with the company in its capacity as a transportation regulator.

“It is not my intention in any way to keep TxDOT from doing its job,” said Schwertner. “However, at the same time I do want to protect Texas taxpayers and do not believe that Texas taxpayers should be signing up to subsidize or bailout a high speed rail project five years, 10 years or 20 years from now.”

Another bill passed Tuesday by Schwertner, SB 979, would require any land taken through eminent domain by the railroad project company be used for the purpose it was taken for, or be offered back to the original owner for repurchase.

Short-term rentals

Also Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill that would prevent cities from banning short-term rentals. These are rentals of less than 30 days, commonly booked through websites or phone apps, that allow property owners to find short term tenants who only need a place to stay for a few weeks or less.

SB 451 by North Richland Hills Senator Kelly Hancock, would still allow municipalities to enforce health and safety codes as well as noise, traffic, and sanitation ordinances, but they couldn’t place an outright ban on the practice. It now heads to the House for consideration.

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