By Richard Lee
For the fort bend star
The Senate Finance Committee gave unanimous approval Wednesday to a proposal to fund state services for the next two years.
The bill, which would spend $116.8 billion in non-discretionary state funds through 2021, includes $9 billion for property tax reform and public education funding reform, the two key priorities for the Legislature this session, said committee chair and Flower Mound Sen. Jane Nelson.
That money is split into three parts: $4 billion to pay for a $5,000 raise for all public school teachers and librarians, $2.3 billion in additional school funding and $2.7 billion for property tax relief.
“This is a robust, financially responsible budget that meets the need of our growing state,” said Nelson. “It makes smart investments in our future and it does these things within our constitutional spending limits.”
Other budget highlights include $2.4 billion to cover student population growth at public schools, more than $1 billion to upgrade information technology and cybersecurity across state agencies and $193 million to reduce wait times at drivers license offices.
Once the bill clears the Senate, five members from each chamber, including Nelson and the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. John Zerwas of Richmond, will come together to work out the differences between the two plans. One potential area of disagreement has already been resolved, said Nelson, as both chambers agree on the funding amount intended for property tax and education reform.
“We continue to negotiate this issue with the House, but both chambers have now reached $9 billion set aside for whatever agreement we reach,” she said.
The House considered its bill for education finance reform, HB 3, in session Wednesday. Nelson also presented a bill to her committee Wednesday that would give the comptroller greater freedom to invest funds in the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF). Senate Bill 69 would change the way the state determines the “sufficient balance” of the rainy day fund, a threshold amount above which the state comptroller is allowed to invest ESF money in market securities. This session, that figure is $7.5 billion.
“While there are differing ideas about how to leverage the ESF, I think everyone agrees that we should not have $7.5 billion lying around the treasury earning a mere 2.6 percent interest,” said Nelson. Currently, sufficient balance is determined by a panel of lawmakers, but Nelson’s proposal would abolish that panel and peg the number to 7 percent of biennial revenue. The sufficient balance would no longer determine the comptroller’s investment authority, instead he or she would be permitted to invest up to three-fourths of the total balance. The Legislative Budget Board fiscal note for the bill estimates that this change would bring in $3.3 billion in additional state revenue through 2021.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee took up a number of measures Tuesday aimed at ensuring that children who are dependent on medical care in their day-to-day lives receive the best care possible. Since 2016, STAR Kids, the state Medicaid program that administers healthcare to these Texans under the age of 21, has operated under a managed care (MCO) rather than a fee for service model. That means that MCO providers receive state and federal money to administer healthcare for these children. The bills considered by the committee would seek to improve and streamline access to and delivery of care for the 5600 children covered through STAR Kids.
Committee chair and Brenham Sen. Lois Kolkhorst offered the most comprehensive of these measures in the form of SB 1105.
“We, I think, can do better, and we will do better with some of the bills we’re seeing this session,” she said.
Her bill would seek to implement efficiencies and reforms intended to modernize and improve the administration of the STAR Kids program. Some of these reforms include a uniform Medicaid grievance submission process with standardized definitions, reporting and tracking requirements across all departments.
It would also require the Health and Human Services Commission to find ways to improve the SK-SAI, the 41-page assessment form that families fill out upon entering the program and then once each year. Parents often find this form complicated and time consuming to fill out, especially if there has been no change in medical status since the last assessment. Additionally, HHSC would have to choose a nationally recognized MCO accreditation organization by 2022, and only contract with MCOs accredited by that organization.
On the floor last Tuesday, the Senate gave tentative approval to a bill its author says is needed to protect the religious freedom of those individuals whose professions are licensed by the state. SB 17, by Lubbock Sen. Charles Perry, would permit individuals facing disciplinary action before a state occupational or licensing board to offer a defense that their behavior was guided by sincerely held religious beliefs. The bill would not shield an individual who breaks a law or who discriminates against classes of people protected under the law or the Constitution. Perry believes that questions involving religious liberty are better resolved by courts than by state regulators.
“I don’t want an unelected administrative board making the decision over what my religious liberty looks like or doesn’t look like in application,” he said. “That’s something I think the courts are better suited for.”
The law would not apply to police, firefighters, other first responders or healthcare providers in situations where life-saving actions are needed.
The bill will require a third, final vote before it clears the Senate.