A Legislative Update from the Texas Public Policy Foundation

Today brings several committee hearings that will influence decisions on both the House and Senate floors in the weeks to come on several major issues, including four we highlight here – teacher incentive pay, eminent domain, consumer-directed health care for state employees and the budget.

It’s worth a comment on the pace of the legislature. Monday was the halfway mark for the 140-day session. As of today, more than 7,000 bills have been filed. The Senate had passed 81 bills as of yesterday, while the House takes up its first bills today. Last session, a total of 6,190 bills were filed; by this point, the House had passed 328 bills and five constitutional amendments, while the Senate had approved 423 bills and three constitutional amendments.

While the media and some pundits decry the slower pace, the truth is that less is typically better – for taxpayers – because legislators attempting to “fix” problems typically do so by limiting freedom, redistributing hard-earned money and expanding government programs, or simply making it more difficult to earn an honest living. If Texas is to recover from the economic downturn, government needs to stay out of the way, rather than stepping in and making things worse.

We invite you to follow these efforts through these emails, and by visiting our website where you can visit our blog, request a speaker, and sign up to receive information about recently released publications and upcoming events via our e-newsletter, TPPN.

Yours in liberty,Justin KeenerVice President of Policy and Communications

The State’s Budget

On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee completed the mark-up of the budget (SB 1) by voting 13-1 in favor of incorporating the stimulus money into Article XII. With so many unanswered questions still surrounding the stimulus package and the details of how it can be spent still being written by the federal government, it is concerning that Sen. Jane Nelson stood alone in her “no” vote.

But there is still time for our lawmakers to carefully consider how the stimulus money will affect Texas’ long-term fiscal position. Hopefully, they’ll remember Sen. Nelson’s admonition that “there is no such thing as a temporary entitlement.” A rush to judgment on how and where stimulus money should be spent before understanding its true nature should sound the alarm that more information is needed before the money is accepted. The question raised by this one “no” vote deserves an answer before we proceed.

Teacher Incentive Pay

The House Appropriations Committee will meet at 8 a.m. today to vote on appropriations for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as well as many other agencies, which will be submitted to the entire House for consideration. Unfortunately, the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee adopted the base budget that included $343 million for incentive pay, but moved TEA’s request for an additional $342 million from Article 3 (Education) to Article 11 (the “wish list”). The Foundation supports incentive pay as part of a broader solution to promote free-market principles in teacher compensation that provide schools with maximum flexibility to reward excellence in teaching and that help fill teaching shortages in critical subject areas.

Private Property Rights

Eminent domain abuse is alive and well in Texas, and the House Land and Resource Management Committee meets at 8 a.m. today to hear several bills on eminent domain reform. Two of these bills are HB 4 and HJR 14. Limiting what is called a ‘public use’ – the purpose for which a person’s land can be taken using eminent domain – is at the heart of the solution, and HJR 14 does this well. And though HB 4 is currently silent on public use, its author says that a definition will soon be included. Our recent research How to Fix Texas’ Kelo Problem provides legislators with clear guidance and language on fixing this problem.

Consumer-driven Health Care for State Employees

At the House Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee hearing today, members will hear testimony on Rep. Myra Crownover’s voluntary consumer-directed health plan for state employees, HB 1176. The bill allows for the creation of a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) and Health Savings Account (HSA) option for all state employees eligible for coverage under the Texas Employees Group Benefits Act. The state currently pays for 100% of individual state employee premiums and half of the dependent’s premium. To control state spending and preserve a quality benefit for state employees, Texas should allow state employees an option between the current basic care plan and a consumer-driven plan. The creation of an optional HSA plan will create competition among the plans and provide state employees with more choices and a more affordable monthly option.