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Texas House defies Senate, decries vouchers — again

Profile image for Will Weissert
Will Weissert, Associated Press

AUSTIN -- Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Texas' leading "school choice" proponent, got the House floor vote on vouchers he demanded -- but not his desired result.

During last week's marathon state budget debate, the House voted 103-44 to prohibit using taxpayer funding for private schools, expressly forbidding vouchers.

That should doom a Senate bill approved days earlier that creates education savings accounts allowing parents to remove children from struggling public schools and send them to private alternatives, and sanctions tax breaks for businesses offering donations to help youngsters pay for private schooling.

Patrick, who oversees the Senate, had tried publicly to force the House's hand on vouchers, fearing the Senate bill might not otherwise make it to a floor vote. Now he knows for sure: Much of the House hates vouchers as much as most of the Senate supports them.

Last session, the Senate approved a larger voucher bill that didn't reach the House floor. In 2015, the House passed a budget amendment declaring that public funding should stay with public schools.

Both chambers are Republican-controlled. They find common ground on other thorny policy issues like abortion restrictions, sanctioning strict voter ID rules and cracking down on immigration. So, why not on vouchers?

House Democrats are strong supporters of teachers, their unions and the public schools where they work. And Democrats typically team with Republicans from rural communities, where private schools are scarce and public ones are top employers as well as social centers. Hoping for a bill the House could stomach this time, the Senate approved vouchers that wouldn't apply to communities of 285,000 residents or less.

But House opposition remained as staunch as ever. Many Republicans say they worry about having to explain votes supporting vouchers to school superintendents in their districts. Exceptions for rural areas doesn't make that easier since voucher plans in other states often started small only to eventually expand to nearly every student.

Patrick insists he's playing the legislative long game and wants to see groundwork laid now pay off with voucher approved during future sessions. It may have to be a very long game, though, since last week's House budget vote was so similar to the one from four years ago. Maybe 2021 could be different?

Here are other issues to watch in the Texas Legislature:

Rape kit tracking

The House votes Tuesday on Austin Democratic Rep. Donna Howard's bill creating a statewide electronic tracking system for evidence collected in sex offense cases.

Howard says a rape kit testing backlog has made it difficult for victims to track their cases. She is proposing collecting information from around the state for an online database making cases easier to follow. It's expected to cost about $1.5 million during Texas' 2018-2019 budget cycle.

Refusing gay marriage

A bill allowing county judges and other officials to refuse to issue licenses for same-sex marriages because of religious objections could soon hit the Senate floor.

Sen. Brian Birdwell's proposal only applies in cases where other, willing officials can issue marriage documents. If those substituting are located outside the county where the marriage license is being sought, documents could be sent electronically.

Opponents say that sanctions discrimination and defies the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage. Birdwell, a Granbury Republican, says he's protecting the religious liberties of judges, county clerks and justices of the peace.

Campus sexual assault

A proposal by Austin Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson that sought to require Texas universities to adopt "affirmative consent" standards in their campus sexual assault polices is set to clear the Senate -- but only after its original aim was alerted dramatically.

"Affirmative consent" means consent for sexual contact occurs through verbal or physical cues and doesn't require victims to have objected, or demonstrated resistance, when alleging assault. But that language was contentious enough to cause the bill to bog down in committee.

Instead, Watson revised it to require that private universities draft sexual assault policies and promote them via public information campaigns -- meeting similar rules already in place for Texas' public universities.