Posted: Jan 31, 2013 4:22 PM
Updated: Jan 31, 2013 4:23 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Thousands of Texans spend millions every year on specialty license plates believing the extra fees they pay will help support such things as state parks, environmental groups or arts organizations, but instead lawmakers have been diverting more than half of those funds to balance the state budget instead of raising taxes.
In the 2012-13 budget cycle alone, the Republican-controlled Legislature diverted $4.9 billion in dedicated funds derived from special fees and taxes to help pay the state's $80 billion in routine expenses. A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants that practice to stop.
"The Legislature collectively over the years has fallen into a bad habit of fee diversions," said Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who helped write last year's budget and has served in the Senate for 12 years. "What do you do when you develop a bad habit? You break it."
Estes spoke promoted a bill Thursday that would stop the diversion of parks and wildlife funds collected through a special sales tax. In the 2012-13 budget, the state collected $250 million in these dedicated funds but only spent $50 million on the Parks and Wildlife Department. Estes said he has also introduced legislation to stop all such diversions by taking dedicated funds out of the appropriations process so lawmakers can't touch them.
The state comptroller reported in December that the Legislature raided dedicated funds for highways, regional trauma centers, medical education programs, clean air projects and even volunteer fire departments.
Lawmakers divert the money every session by passing a funds consolidation bill, which eliminates all the strings attached to dedicated accounts and puts all the money one big pot, explained Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who has been fighting the practice for five years. He praised the apparent bipartisan support for ending diversions and budget gimmicks.
"We have dug a very deep hole because we have an honesty deficit in our budget," Watson said. "We must end the debt, diversions and deception that have played too great a role in Texas' budget process for too long."
TEXAS SENATORS SLAM OFTEN-USED CURRICULUM SYSTEM
Top education leaders in the state Senate on Thursday grilled the creators of a curriculum system used across Texas that critics claim promotes anti-American values and stifles classroom flexibility.
CSCOPE is an electronic curriculum management system that offers Web-based lesson plans and exams designed to help teachers adhere to state educational requirements. It is now used in 875 school districts more than 70 percent of districts statewide and is supposed to be flexible enough for teachers to alter content to meet their individual needs.
But some teachers have complained CSCOPE it too rigid, and conservative activists say it promotes biased, progressive ideology.
A string of witnesses before the Senate Education Committee raised those concerns, criticizing the program for lacking transparency and promoting liberal values they said were anti-Christian at best and openly socialist at worst.
One witness compared the system to "mind control," while an algebra teacher wept as he described quitting because he felt he was "aiding and abetting a crime" by using CSCOPE in his classroom.
Defending the system was Wade Lebay, director of state CSCOPE at the Region 13 Education Service Center in Austin. He said CSCOPE offers about 1,600 model lessons districts can access for a fee of $7 per student, though additional training for teachers on how to use the system can increase the per-pupil price.
"It's built by teachers, designed by teachers and that's what's powerful about CSCOPE," Lebay said. His is one of 20 service centers statewide that serve as liaisons between school districts and the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public schools.
Senators asked Lebay about complaints some lesson plans promoted pro-Islam ideals, or described participants of the Boston Tea Party as terrorists.
Lebay was even asked to read part of a sixth grade lesson plan that showed different countries' flags and instructed students to "notice that socialist and communist countries use symbolism on their flags." It went on to ask students what symbols they would use if they were to create a flag for a new socialist country.
First-term Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, asked, "Does that sound like we're sympathizing with those types of countries?" He later said he found the lesson plan "very egregious as a Texan and an American."
Linda Villarreal, director of the Region 2 Education Service Center in Corpus Christi, responded, "We have 1,600 lessons, so to take just this one is...." Taylor cut her off asking, "Who is reviewing these 1,600 plans?"
Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick said objected to what he called the program's lack of transparency, complaining parents can't access lesson plans. CSCOPE's creators say such materials aren't available publicly because of intellectual property concerns, but elected officials should be allowed access.
PATRICK WANTS TO OVERHAUL GRADUATION REQUIREMENTS
The head of the Texas Senate Education Committee has filed a bill overhauling high school graduation requirements to better emphasize "workforce development."
Sen. Dan Patrick's measure would create an eighth grade career exploratory course helping students choose what they want to take in high school.
The Houston Republican wants to allow students to then choose between three academic paths in grades 9 through 12.
They can study a vocational plan featuring electives in business and industry, or one built around science and technology. A third option stresses arts and humanities.
Students would still have to take core courses, and pass standardized tests, in math, science, social studies and language arts.
Endorsing Patrick's measure Thursday were 19 industry trade organizations, who say Texas students must be better-prepared for future high-tech jobs.
TEXAS HOUSE SPEAKER ANNOUNCES COMMITTEES
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has announced committee assignments, clearing the way for hearings to begin.
Straus filled 38 standing committees and three select committees on Thursday, maintaining the tradition of appointing both Republicans and Democrats to leadership positions. Republicans will chair 28 committees and Democrats 13.
Senior members of the Republican majority will continue to control the most important committees. Kerrville Rep. Harvey Hilderbran will continue to chair Ways and Means and Waxahachie Rep. Jim Pitts will chair Appropriations. Straus appointed Killeen Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock as the new public education chairman.
Democratic Rep. Rene Oliveira was appointed chair of the Business and Industry Committee, while recently re-elected Rep. Abel Herrero from South Texas will lead the Criminal Justice Committee.
The Texas House has 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats.
STAAR '15 PERCENT' RULE BILL SENT TO FULL SENATE
The Education Committee has referred to the full Texas Senate a measure allowing local school districts to decide how much they want STAAR exam results to count toward high school students' grades.
Texas law requires that scores on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness exam count 15 percent of high school students' grades in core courses.
But the rule has been widely criticized by parents and district superintendents. It has been suspended each of the first two years the STAAR test has been administered.
Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick proposes allowing local school districts to decide if, and how much, they want STAAR results to factor into final grades from zero to 15 percent.
The committee voted unanimously Thursday to send the bill to the Senate.
HOUSE SPEAKER: DRIVER'S LICENSE COST MAY NEED HIKE
Should the cost of getting a Texas driver's license rise to help the state's ailing and congested roads?
House Speaker Joe Straus on Thursday suggested the idea is worth exploring. Texas drivers currently must renew their license every six years at a price of $25.
Straus says that's a low cost that has been taken for granted. The powerful Republican told members of the Texas Association of Business that revisiting that price could generate more revenue for transportation projects.
Both Republicans and Democrats have prioritized infrastructure this session. Gov. Rick Perry has given his blessing to take $3.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to secure water and build more roads.
Proposals by lawmakers to increase driver's license fees by $8 failed in 2011.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"What do you do when you develop a bad habit? You break it." Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, on the Legislature's tradition of diverting dedicated funds to balance the budget.