Meet the School Finance Reform Players (and the Money Behind Them)

As this Texas legislative session draws to a close, all eyes are on Austin to see if lawmakers can deliver on the two things they promised voters — reforming the property tax and school finance systems. Last week we took a look at the key players in the property tax debate. This week we’re focusing on school finance.

Just yesterday, the Senate passed its version of school finance reform. A conference committee will now be formed to iron out the differences in the House and Senate versions of the legislation.

So who are the power players influencing whether these bills get passed and how they will be funded? Here’s a look at those who will be instrumental in the final days of the school finance debate.

State Senator Larry Taylor:

As Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, State Senator Larry Taylor, SD 11, (Friendswood, Angleton, Pearland and Galveston areas) first added the amendment which tied a sales tax to passage of school finance reform package then later removed it. He will serve on the conference committee to resolve the differences with the House version of this bill.

First elected in 2012, Taylor ran unopposed in his last election in 2016. These are his top donors in the last two years:

Taylor’s Top Ten Donor’s:
Texas Association of Realtors PAC $27,980
Farmer’s Employee & Agent PAC of Texas$15,000
Texas Charter Schools Now PAC$15,000
Texas Land Title Assoc. PAC$15,000
Houston Pilots PAC Fund$12,500
PAC of the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas $12,500
Associated General Contractors of Texas$11,000
Allstate Insurance Company of Texas$10,000
AT&T, Inc. Texas PAC$10,000
Charles C. Butt$10,000

State Representative Dan Huberty:

State Representative Dan Huberty, HD 127 (including a northeast portion of the greater Houston area and Kingwood) is the original author of House Bill 3 and the Chairman of the Public Education Committee in the Texas House. He will serve on the school finance conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of HB3.

Huberty’s only Republican primary opponent in 2016 was disqualified for not maintaining a residence in the district, and Huberty had no Democrat opponent in the general election. He defeated Libertarian Ryan Woods by taking more than 80 percent of the vote.

Huberty’s Top Ten Donor’s:
Texas Association of Realtors PAC$32,600
Texans for Lawsuit Reform$22,500
Charles C. Butt$20,000
Exelon Corporation PAC$7,500
Texas House Republican Caucus PAC$6785
Association of Texas Professional Educators PAC$6,000
Shirley and James Dannenbaum$6,000
U.S. Anesthesia Partners of Texas PAC$5,250
ACT for Texas Classroom Teachers$5,000

Key Takeaways from the contributions to Taylor and Huberty:

  1. Both men collected a significant amount of money for an election without a Democrat opponent. These donations were likely a means of expressing approval for the job done in the last session or currying favor for this one.
  2. It is not surprising that Charles Butt, CEO and owner of the H-E-B grocery chain appears on both lists. He is a prolific giver to Texas politicians, particularly liberal Republicans and some Democrats. Both Taylor and Huberty would be ripe candidates for Butt’s giving as they are ranked by the nonpartisan study done by Dr. Mark Jones of Rice University as falling among the most liberal Republicans in their respective chambers. Moreover, Butt is an outspoken opponent of school vouchers, and these men chair House and Senate Education Committees.
  3. Huberty’s top ten list includes two teachers union PACs, the Association of Texas Professional Educators PAC and the ACT for Texas Classroom Teachers PAC. These unions are generally in favor of the proposed pay raises, but adamantly opposed to any merit-based pay systems. The Texas Charter Schools Now PAC also donated to both lawmakers — making the number three spot on Taylor’s list of donors and coming in just a bit below “Top Ten” status at number 12 for Huberty.

The Big Three

From the first days of this session, Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen declared they would work together to ensure that their top priorities — property tax reform and school finance reform — passed this session. They effectively bet the farm (or at least their political capital and maybe their political futures) on these two difficult issues.

They faced a somewhat embarrassing setback this week. After staging a press conference Friday where they championed a one cent increase in the state sales tax to pay for the reform efforts, the idea was soundly defeated in both the House and the Senate just a few days later.

While they may be smarting from the defeat, it is unlikely they will stay on the sidelines. Watch for Patrick to continue to push for the $5,000 pay raise along with merit-based pay incentives. Bonnen will likely press the conference committee to give more discretion to local school districts. Abbott will use his sway to push for compromise to get something, maybe anything, across the finish line so he can declare victory.

Teachers’ Unions

In addition to the PAC donations listed above, teachers unions and other education-related groups deploy a host of lobbyists in Austin. So far, their results have been mixed. Their first concern this session was to prevent the legislature from lowering the rate at which school districts can increase property taxes without voter approval. They seem to have lost that battle (but don’t count them out yet). The previous rate was eight percent. The current proposal headed to conference committee is significantly lower. On the other hand, teachers unions like the idea of a $5,000 pay raise and consider that a win. They will likely dedicate the remainder of the session to fighting any merit-based pay proposals, particularly fighting any efforts to tie teacher evaluations to the Texas STAAR tests.

What to Look For:

There are less than three weeks to go in this session and the key pieces of legislation, property tax reform and school finance reform, are still linked and still unresolved. It will be fascinating to watch as the conference committees try to come up with a compromise that can pass both chambers and earn the Governor’s signature.

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