Political News

What to Watch: Why school vouchers may be back from the dead

Posted May 14

— The Texas House thought it had killed school vouchers. The Senate is resurrecting them.

A Senate committee last week attached a plan offering vouchers to special education children while approving a $1.6 billion House proposal to begin overhauling Texas' troubled school finance system. House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, has championed the school finance fix. Now, his counterpart in the Senate, Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, may make Huberty choose between accepting vouchers or sacrificing his legislative baby.

Taylor spent months carefully shepherding a separate, sweeping voucher bill through the Senate that the House refused to even consider, instead overwhelmingly passing an amendment saying public funds should stay in public schools. He, and school vouchers' biggest supporter in Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, could now have their revenge.

The provision tacked on by the Senate committee is modest, offering $8,300 in taxpayer funds that some special education students could use to attend private schools. But cracking the door to vouchers could soon throw it wide open. In most states where vouchers started small, they expanded far and wide at breakneck speed.

The committee-revised school finance bill should hit the Senate floor and pass early this week. It'll then go back to the House, which will likely reject the change. A conference committee may have to eventually reconcile both versions, and vouchers could either die (again) or prove a poison pill for Huberty's bill — meaning Texas gets neither a school finance fix nor vouchers.

But, since vouchers seemed dead and buried mere days ago, their prospects are suddenly brighter. Here are some other issues to watch with the end of the legislative session now just 15 days away:

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PHARMACIST 'RELIGIOUS REFUSAL'

A little-noticed, tea party-backed amendment to a bill regulating pharmacies allows pharmacists to refuse service to gay, non-Christian or other kinds of customers, citing "sincerely held religious beliefs."

What the House passed has yet to clear the Senate, which could remove that language. In the meantime, though, it's drawing criticism.

Katy Caldwell, CEO of Legacy Community Health, a non-profit health center providing care at 22 Southeast Texas clinics, said in a statement, "I'm not sure how we can make sick people healthy if they can get turned away at the pharmacy counter."

The Texas Medical Association says it "respects the rights of the pharmacists, but at the same time we must ensure that patients' rights to access medications legally prescribed by their physicians are upheld."

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TEXTING WHILE DRIVING

A statewide ban on texting while driving sailed through the House nearly two months ago, but hasn't reached a Senate floor vote. That's despite public pressure ratcheting up after 13 people were killed near New Braunfels on Mach 29, when a driver, who witnesses said was texting while driving, crashed his pickup head-on into a church van.

The ban will be considered Monday in Senate committee and there's still time for it to clear the Legislature before the May 29 end of session. But it's moved far slower than many thought after such a deadly crash.

Forty-six states have laws against texting while driving that typically also ban sending or reading email, using apps or engaging in other use of the internet. A statewide ban passed Texas' House and Senate in 2011 but then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it as government micromanagement of adults.

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'RAISE THE AGE'

Another bill passed by the House but bottled up in the Senate seeks to increase from 17 to 18 the age at which offenders automatically enter Texas' adult legal system.

Houston Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton's "raise the age" bill is holding in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, where chairman John Whitmire, a fellow Houston Democrat, has declared it dead — though late legislative wrangling could still change that.

Similar bills failed in previous sessions, but the change is backed by youth organizations, criminal justice reform groups and conservatives who want the state to spend less on prisons.

Dutton's bill could also eventually cost $35-million-plus annually to implement, however, and opponents worry about increasing the ranks of the state's troubled juvenile justice system, which would absorb many cases under the bill.

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