With the 83rd legislative session underway as of Jan. 8, legislators are looking into and debating the best ways to handle issues of water shortages, education and health care among other top challenges facing the state.
Due to a boost of economic vitality mainly in the oil and gas industry, the state will bring in as much as $8 billion in additional revenue than was initially expected, according to the comptroller’s office. Leadership in the state legislature has suggested most of this money will be committed to restore funds that were cut from the Medicaid budget last session, as well as buy back a deferral on public education, said Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R–Magnolia.
“We are basically going to use all the dollars that are currently perceived as extra because the 82nd legislature ultimately spent those dollars,” Bell said. “We’re not going to have the same challenges that the last session had, but we’re still going to have to stay lean and stay frugal.”
On top of Medicaid and education, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, has suggested that as much as $1 billion will be invested in addressing issues related to water. According to Mark Stoll, a Tomball city councilman who has been active in ensuring the city has a long-term water supply, focusing on water is essential at state and local levels.
Leading into the 83rd session, Sen. Dan Patrick, R–Houston, was appointed by Dewhurst as the chairman of the senate education committee. He is the first Houston representative to serve as chairman since the 1960s.
With roughly half of the state’s $90 billion budget going toward education, Patrick said that education is the heart of every decision the state makes.
“We want to find solutions to solve how we get more students to graduate, how we get more students into the workforce and how we get more students to be successful in college,” he said. “If we solve that issue, everything else will fall into place.”
Bell, who served as the president of the Magnolia ISD school board before being elected to the Texas House in November, said he would like to see more opportunities related to career and technology programs. In particular, he is looking into the possibility of high schools partnering with community colleges to offer advanced programs where students can earn trade certifications.
“One of our challenges is figuring out how to address the need to bring a skilled work force back to the table rapidly,” Bell said. “There is a demand for skilled labor in our state that we are not able to supply, so we have to import workers. This is an example of how closely education is tied to our economy.”
The fate of standardized testing in Texas is also going to be on the table. The requirement to count STAAR test results for 15 percent of students’ final grade has been deferred another year at the urging of Gov. Rick Perry. School districts have the option to enact the rule on an individual basis, but both Tomball and Magnolia ISDs will take advantage of the deferral, as have 1,100 of the states roughly 1,200 school districts.
Bell suggested standardized testing, as it currently exists, needs to be rethought completely.
“I’ve been hearing a groundswell to remove it, period,” he said. “It is important to make sure our students are learning what they are supposed to learn, but I have not talked to one person who has a child in school or who has been in school who is not tired of teaching to the test.”
Maintaining access to drinkable water is recognized as a priority by legislators across the board, which is why lawmakers are considering setting aside $1 billion to help cities and counties pay for environmental studies, permits and construction in an effort to create more sources of drinking water, such as reservoirs.
In Tomball and Magnolia, water supplies are in good shape, but state legislators in the Houston area are hoping to stay ahead of the curve in determining future water supplies. Although water discussions in the 83rd legislature are likely to focus on alleviating problems in suffering areas, lawmakers are also coming up with ways to promote and encourage conservation efforts, said Rep. Bill Callegari, R–Katy.
“I personally want to avoid laws that require people to conserve more water, but one thing that is certainly on the table is coming up with ways to educate people on why conservation is crucial moving forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, efforts to convert from groundwater to surface water are still being carried out in Harris and Montgomery counties. The threat of subsidence—where excessive groundwater usage in an area causes the ground to sink—has been discovered to be an issue for Tomball, Stoll said. Because Tomball has been left out of plans to convert to surface water, the city created a committee to look into ways to deal with subsidence and ensure a stable water source moving forward.
“Nothing has been decided yet because we need to hear what our options are from many different people,” said Stoll, who serves on the committee. “That is what we are trying to do right now.”