This legislative session has been one of the most challenging and one of the most rewarding legislative session since I began my career in the Texas Legislature. The Texas House of Representatives is committed to an ambitious plan. The key priorities include reforming and adequately funding public education, securing reliable water supplies for the future, and improving transparency in the state budget.
In 2013, we entered the legislative session with a much more positive revenue outlook than in 2011. Instead of a $27 billion shortfall, we were met with an $8 billion surplus. The budget surplus is due in large part to the tough but fiscally responsible decisions we made in 2011. Someone once said "the most dangerous thing in government is a budget surplus" and they were not wrong. However, there is a difference between a surplus that can be used to grow government, and a surplus that is needed to address critical areas of government like water, transportation, and public education.
Last night the Texas House approved the 2014-15 budget. The highlights of the budget include:
- 8.6% ($2.97 billion) increase in the Foundation School Program (the main source of funding for public schools);
- 3% increase in funding for Universities and Medical Schools;
- $150 million increase in Texas Grants financial aid for higher education;
- A significant increase in the state contribution to the Teacher Retirement System; and
- $210 million increase in mental health funding.
Increased funding alone will not solve all of the problems in our public schools. We have heard from many parents, students, and teachers about the burden that our current accountability system has placed upon them. House Bill 5 reforms graduation requirements in an effort to give students and teachers more flexibility. House Bill 5 also reduces the number of end of course exams and gives local schools more control over how those tests are used.
Another important tool in public education is our charter school system. A high performing charter school can provide a wonderful opportunity for our students. A low performing charter is a waste of taxpayer dollars. I filed House Bill 3319 to reform the Texas charter school system. This bill will ensure that charter schools are held to the same standards as our public schools and empower the Texas Education Agency to shut down low performing charters. At the same time the bill allows for modest growth in high performing charter schools.
In addition to education, the House is moving forward with plans to address our water needs. Growing demand for water and recent droughts have put a spotlight on Texas water supplies. Without water any discussion of a growing economy is simply an academic excercise. House Bill 4 and House Bill 11 together will spend $2 billion from the State's Rainy Day Fund to fully fund and implement our state water plan. These critical bills are moving through the process and, if passed, will fully fund our state water plan for the next 50 years.
Finally, I have the honor to serve as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Budget Transparency and Reform. My committee has already held hearings on a number of key pieces of legislation. We have already heard testimony on House Bill 14 that I authored with Chairman Jim Pitts that seeks to improve transparency and accountability in local government. Last week we also held hearings on House Bills 6 and 7 that will make our budget process more transparent by ensuring that fees and taxes are spent for the purposes they were originally intended.
We are halfway through the legislative session and the Texas House of Representatives remains committed to improving our public schools and addressing our infrastructure needs.