Flood-prevention, school finance bills approved in 86th Texas Legislature to affect Lake Houston area

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Hundreds of bills passed during the 86th Texas Legislature, and many of them will directly affect the Lake Houston area, including a school finance reform bill, flood mitigation funds and bills seeking to regulate sand-mining companies.

The $11.6 billion school finance reform legislation, House Bill 3, was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 11. The bill is being touted by lawmakers as a victory for public school districts, such as Humble and New Caney ISDs—as both districts are anticipated to receive millions of dollars in additional funds for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

Co-authored by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, HB 3 puts forth about $6.5 billion toward public education and about $5.1 billion toward property tax reform. Huberty said the percentage of public education funding from the state to school districts has decreased in recent years.

“Instead of paying what would be considered at least half of the cost of education, we have … continued to decline and use that money for other purposes,” Huberty said.

Lawmakers also pushed bills through the session that sought to fund flood prevention projects, such as dredging the West Fork of the San Jacinto River, and create stricter regulations for sand mining companies—which some officials said have contributed to Lake Houston-area flooding.

School finance reform

Despite HB 3’s passage, local educators said there is a lot of uncertainty about the reform’s effects on districts such as Humble and New Caney ISDs.

HISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said the Texas Education Agency is scheduled to release a Preliminary Summary of Finance worksheet to help the district determine a more accurate estimate of revenue.

The Legislative Budget Board created model runs for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, which are helping school districts predict increased revenue.

The LBB estimates HISD’s revenue will increase by almost $22.9 million in 2020 and $24.3 million in 2021, while NCISD’s revenue is set to increase by $15.5 million and $16 million in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

HB 3 reduced recapture payments from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts, increased the base funding for each student and provides funds for full-day pre-K for economically disadvantaged 4-year-olds. HB 3 also mandated districts allocate 30% of new monies to employee raises with three-fourths of it reserved for teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors.

On June 11, the HISD board of trustees unanimously approved an $18.7 million compensation package for employees—which district officials said is the largest compensation package in memory.

“I wanted to make sure people understood that we’re not putting that state money in our pockets—we’re putting it where it matters most, and that’s the folks on the front line working with our kids,” trustee Robert Sitton said.

Additionally, the district also increased employee raises for police officers and bus drivers as well as custodial, cafeteria and assistant staff.

On June 17, NCISD board of trustees approved a 5.5% pay increase for teachers with more than five years’ experience, a 5% increase for teachers with five years or less experience and a 4% increase for all other employees.

“The district’s compensation plan proposal calls for teacher raises that are greater than what is required by HB 3 with the goal of remaining in the top quartile in the Houston area in teacher compensation,” said Scott Powers, the executive director of public relations at NCISD, via email.

Focus on flooding

A trio of bills—Senate bills 6, 7 and 8—aimed at preventing flooding across Texas and disbursing funds throughout damage-stricken parts of the state were signed into law by Abbott in mid-June.

“I am proud of the work that we did to address [Hurricane] Harvey, and am confident that Texas will now have the most comprehensive flood-mitigation and recovery package in the nation,” said state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who authored SB 7.

SB 6 is aimed at improving how emergency departments respond to flooding, while SB 7 deals with present-time Hurricane Harvey recovery. Both bills were signed by Abbott on June 13. The third bill, SB 8, which calls for a statewide flood-mitigation plan, was signed June 10.

With SB 7’s implementation, roughly $1.8 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund would go toward Creighton’s Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Fund and Senate bills 6 and 8, with another $1.2 billion directed at the local school tax revenue that was lost due to property damage, according to a Senate newsletter.

Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, said the Texas Water Development Board and the Texas Division of Emergency Management are the two state agencies responsible for issuing guidance on SB 7. The internal guidance will better guide the HCFCD on accessing funds and prioritizing projects, he said.

Huberty also said these bills—along with an amendment to SB 500 that allocated $30 million to dredging operations in rivers and tributaries—will contribute to flood-mitigation efforts in the Lake Houston area. He said the $30 million can be used as a state match to local funds.

“We’re going to start using that money to dredge the inlets and a lot of the bayous in and around Lake Houston and the work that has not been completed that’ll need to be completed relative to the mouth bar [of the West Fork of the San Jacinto River],” he said.

Environmental regulations

Lawmakers also tackled the issue of sand mining during the legislative session, as some organizations and officials have said the growing number of sand mining operations along the West Fork of the San Jacinto River may have increased the amount of sediment in the river—thus reducing the river’s capacity to hold water in flood events.

SB 2126, also authored by Creighton, did not pass in the session. It would have allowed sand mining operations, known as aggregate production operators (APOs), to mine from the West Fork of the San Jacinto River and its tributaries to increase the river’s capacity to hold water.

Meanwhile, Huberty’s HB 907 was signed by Abbott on June 14, which increases the maximum registration fee for sand mining operators and increases the penalty for APOs who do not follow Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulations. Huberty’s other sand-mining bill, HB 909, would have required the TCEQ to adopt best-management practices for APOs to model. It stalled in the session.

However, TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Andrew Keese said via email the agency has been working with Abbott’s and Huberty’s offices on the effects of APOs since Hurricane Harvey. Keese said the TCEQ already has some best management practices in place, but the agency will work with officials and interested parties to refine the practices.

Huberty said management practices could include requiring APOs to plant vegetation after abandoning a mining site and increasing setbacks from the flood plains.

“You don’t need to pass laws to make things happen in the state of Texas,” Huberty said.

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Kelly Schafler
Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.
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