Six days before the start of the Special Session, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R) held a news conference Thursday to discuss his priorities.
"I intend to pass 20 of 20 of the Governor's priorities," Patrick said. "Which are his priorities, my priorities, the people's priorities."
"Today I want to lay out a bold and serious plan for increasing teacher pay as the Governor has asked us to do," he added. "I agree with him that teachers are the most important part of a child's education. We must make every effort to compensate them for the work they do because our children's education is critical to the future of our state."
Before laying out the details of his plan, Patrick spent time taking a few shots at Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio).
"I want to emphasize, this is a serious plan which is different from what the Speaker laid out during the regular session and continues to talk about. That was nothing more than an education Ponzi scheme," Patrick said.
Patrick was referring to House Bill 21 written by Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston). It would have increased how much the state put in to educate students and achieved that be revising the funding formulas. The House of Representatives allocated funding for the plan in its version of the budget.
But Patrick said the plan wasn't funded and that representatives wanted to defer a payment into the Foundation Schools Program to get the extra $1.5 million it would have cost.
While Patrick did acknowledge the legislature has deferred payment to the program before, he said the way it was proposed was a scheme.
"You don't defer money from one program and then turn around and use that money and give that same program their money back. That's a Ponzi scheme," Patrick said.
Patrick then accused Straus of wanting to implement a state income tax.
"The speaker's still saying he wants to add billions to education. He even put it in a mailer, I understand, this week. What he's not saying, and what he continues not to say, is where does that money come from," Patrick said. Adding the only way to come up with that much money is through a state income tax, something he doesn't support.
Patrick said before he got into the details of his proposal, he also wanted to take time to dispel the "rumors" that Texas doesn't adequately fund education.
"We spend 52 percent of all the money we have on education," Patrick said.
That 52 percent accounts for both K-12 education and higher education.
Patrick went on to note the increases in funding, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.
"Since 2000, we have increased spending to education on all levels by 108 percent," Patrick said, "108 percent. School enrollment's only gone up 32 percent."
He added that in that same time frame, teacher pay has increased 35 percent. Patrick didn't indicate the rate of inflation, legislative mandates or other factors that may have played into the increase in education funding.
Patrick went on to say superintendents and school boards must re-prioritize how they're spending money to make teachers the priority.
"They have to be better about how they spend the money and they have to put more focus, as what the Governor is calling, a plan for raising teacher salaries. They have to put more focus on teachers, they have to prioritize how they spend the money," Patrick said.
"Teachers are the key. Buildings don't educate students. Expensive stadiums don't help teachers to help kids to read or solve math problems," he added. "Every dollar counts."
It is worth noting that many school districts in Texas build new schools and stadiums through voter-approved bonds rather than state-allocated funds.
Patrick said he took the number of students in Texas schools and divided it by the number of teachers to conclude the state spends $163,764 per classroom.
"We spend $163,000 per classroom. Teachers are making $51,000 a year on average, just under $52,000," he said. "So the teacher gets 52 but we're spending 163. Where's the money going? And again, I know where much of it is going. Instructional materials, we have a large percentage of the population that's not proficient in English. We have special needs students. My point is, we need to spend more of that money on the most important asset, the teachers."
Patrick added that of the money the state sends districts, less than 32 percent goes to teachers and he wants that to change.
"One of my goals, and it needs to be the goal of the legislature to direct this, is for school districts to increase the amount of money they're spending by five percent over the next four years on teachers. That would take the average teacher from $51,000 to $60,000."
And with that, Patrick began to lay out his plan for legislation he wants passed during the Special Session.
First, Patrick wants the state to provide annual longevity bonuses for current and retired teachers. Teachers who have worked between six and ten years would receive a $600 bonus every March. Teachers who have worked for 11 or more years would get $1,000 a year. Retired teachers who taught for at least 20 years would get $600 a year with an extra $100 a year until they reach the cap of $1,000.
"We have to thank those teachers who have put in a long career and we have to encourage those to stay in teaching now or those that are kind of in the middle years to continue," Patrick said.
He also wants to add $200 million to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), partly to help fund rising health care costs.
"Some of that, several million dollars, focused on one group that's been hit and that's retired teachers who have a disabled child that they're still caring for," Patrick said. "Another area would be to help lower the cost of drugs because that plan has changed. And another will be, there's about 15 percent of the teachers who are also covering their spouse, they're over 65 and their premiums have gone up."
Patrick said Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) will take the lead and craft that bill for the Special Session. He said when lawmakers return in 2019, they can work to find a long-term fix for adding more funding to the TRS.
The Lieutenant Governor estimates the total cost of his plan to fund raises and increase the TRS is $700 million. In order to pay for it this budget cycle, he has a plan; defer payments to Managed Care Organizations which are Medicaid programs.
"We can take that $700 million and of that $700 million, we will pay for these bonuses for teachers, starting in March and next March. It will pay for both years. It will pay for the bonuses for retired teachers," Patrick said. "It will pay for the 200 million for TRS and it will provide $150 million for ASATR districts and $60 million for fast growth school districts and charter school facilities."
ASATR is an acronym for Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction. The Legislature created the program in 2006 to ensure no school district received less funding because of a reduction in property tax rates. Patrick said lawmakers never intended for the program to be permanent and it has to be phased out, but that providing some money would help those districts.
"Now the next question is 'okay Dan, how do you pay for it long term,'" Patrick said. "Well, the answer is really simple. Remember the Texas lottery?"
Patrick said he is often questioned by Texans about the education funding that was supposed to come from the Texas Lottery.
"Maybe it was the Ponzi Scheme of the early 90s. It was never going to pay for education," Patrick said.
"It brings in, this year was a high year, about $1.2 billion. It brings in about a billion a year," he said. "But it just goes into the general school fund. So what I am going to recommend is a constitutional amendment that hopefully we can get on the ballot in November, if we work quick enough, or next May. But the people will decide. And what the amendment will say is the first $700 million of the lottery will go to pay the longevity bonuses for retired teachers and current teachers."
Patrick said the remaining $300 million would then go into the general school fund.
"Now I know what the schools are going to say, 'well you're taking $700 million away from us'. No, we're not. We're just directing it to teachers because you haven't been," Patrick said.
The Lieutenant Governor did not say what the $700 million in funding from the lottery is currently being used for by school districts, nor did he add how districts would pay for those services without that funding.
Lastly, Patrick suggested the state can pick up the tab for recapture or "Robin Hood" instead of school districts. Recapture requires property-wealthy districts to send money to the state to subsidize property-poor districts.
Patrick estimated Texas schools pay $1.5 billion in recapture. Austin ISD officials say they have been particularly hit hard by recapture.
"If we could just find less than two-percent in savings, actually about one-percent, across the entire budget, the state can pay the recapture payments. The schools will not have to pay them," Patrick said.
The state's annual budget is about $20 billion a year. Patrick said trimming the budget to pay for recapture can work until the Robin Hood problem is solved.
"If we can pay that payment from the state instead of the schools paying it, calculated by the school districts, but make the payment at the state, then that will put significant more dollars into many school districts," Patrick said. "It's just a matter of prioritizing."
As Patrick was talking to reporters, a group of teachers overheard his news conference. Nicole Elliott, an elementary school teacher in Mesquite, Texas, was one of those teachers. She said she agrees teachers deserve more money.
"I like it," Elliot said. "It's going on the right track."
Elliott noted she has to buy supplies for her students and classroom and often isn't reimbursed and she spends more than she's allowed to write off on her taxes.
"When you think about it, these people making millions in money, doctors, lawyers, who taught them how to do that? Teachers," she said.
But she doesn't agree that schools get enough money, noting there is a significant difference in classroom structure and materials from 2000 to 2016, which is the time period that Patrick said school funding increased by 108-percent.
"There is a lot more technology and that's what kids are used to using," said Elliott.
She was in high school in the year 2000.
"We didn't have iPads or smartphones when I was in high school. We had a few computers, but the teachers weren't using technology like we use today. We use so much technology."
She also disagreed with the idea that to pay teachers more, districts just need to re-prioritize funding.
"I feel like a lot of people that say that aren't actually in the classroom. They don't see the daily lives of what's happening. The conditions, maybe that the teachers have or that there's too many kids in a classroom. And again, at the end of the day, it's what's best for the kids and if there's not resources or funding or if it's overpopulated, overcrowded, if you don't have the sources you need to help the students, I mean those are the ones that are going to suffer. You have to think about it, they're our future."
Association of Texas Professional Educators Lobbyist Mark Wiggins said Patrick didn't reach out to the organization to collaborate on the plan, something members of the House and Straus has done. Wiggins added Patrick's ideas are worth looking at, but without more state funding it's hard to see how they will work.
"What's a stunt is saying that you have adequately funded education when you're actually sending less state money to schools and asking them to make up the balance by asking their local tax payers for more. And then complaining that taxes are too high," Wiggins said.
Patrick closed his news conference by saying he is willing to work with Straus to pass the items, but implied he's not sure the Speaker is willing to work with him.
"I'm always willing to work. I have requested, throughout the entire session a meeting with the Speaker.I've never had a one-on-one meeting with the Speaker the entire session or since session ended," Patrick said.
He did note that he has seen Straus at events and they've had short conversations, but never anything of "substance." Patrick went on to say he does, however, speak with and see Governor Greg Abbott quite regularly.
Straus sent KVUE News the following statement on Patrick's plan:
"It's encouraging to see the Lieutenant Governor's newfound focus on school finance reform. Nothing could be more important in this special session than beginning to fix our school finance system so that we improve education, keep more local dollars in local schools, and provide real property tax relief, just as the House overwhelmingly approved in the regular session."
Governor Greg Abbott also released a statement on the plan:
"I applaud Lt. Governor Patrick and the Texas Senate for their intention to act swiftly and pass all of my special session agenda items," said Governor Abbott. "My office has been working with lawmakers in both the Senate and House these past six weeks, and if these items do not get passed, it will be for lack of will, not for lack of time. I thank the Senate for their commitment to finish the people's business, and I look forward to working with both the House and Senate to get these bills to my desk."