TCTA | TRS has contentious Senate budget hearing
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TRS has contentious Senate budget hearing

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While the aftermath of last week’s winter storm was the focus of much legislative discussion, the Senate held budget hearings for TEA and TRS on Monday. The TEA hearing was generally mild, but TRS was on the defensive after Executive Director Brian Guthrie got an earful from legislators about agency spending.

Texas Education Agency

The base budget for TEA maintains the investments made in public education through HB 3 last session. It includes $2.1 billion for enrollment growth.

During testimony, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath reiterated his strong belief that STAAR testing is necessary to gauge student learning, and several senators supported his stance. Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor said the cost of STAAR testing was only $7 per student, and it is important to know where students are in their mastery of TEKS, and determine how we can catch them up.

Morath noted that as of Oct. 30, 54% of students were being educated on campus, and more recent figures were similar (unofficially, around 56%). He also noted that enrollment had dropped considerably, with 55,000 fewer prekindergarten students this year compared to last, 24,000 fewer kindergarten students, and 77,000 fewer in grades 1-12.

Committee members discussed extensively their concerns about whether districts were working effectively to find missing students.

Teacher Retirement System

Senators challenged Executive Director Brian Guthrie on several issues of concern, ranging from the controversial office space lease in downtown Austin to staff compensation and investment returns. One senator noted “You might want to thank ERCOT for taking first place now for the worst management and judgment in state government.”

There was a discussion about school employee health insurance, specifically with regard to TRS-ActiveCare. Many districts currently required to participate in ActiveCare would like to leave the program because they believe they can provide better benefits and/or lower premium rates through local plans. There are two major concerns about allowing districts to leave:

  • TRS disputes that most districts can actually find better coverage outside of ActiveCare. In their review of local plans, they contend that premium rates are lower because benefits are inadequate and the plans may lack important protections such as coverage for expensive specialty drugs.
  • Allowing large numbers of employees to leave ActiveCare will hurt those remaining in the plan, as it is more difficult to control costs in a smaller group.

Despite these concerns, senators including Chairman Taylor appeared to support the idea of allowing districts to withdraw from ActiveCare.

Tuesday’s Capitol events include more budget hearings on the House side, including consideration of TRS in the Appropriations Committee.