Budget, Retirement, Vaccinations, Bathrooms and More!

Apr 26, 2017, 15:44 PM by Ben Raimer

Ben’s Blog 2017 (#7); Apr 26Retirement Planning

Progress on Budgets and Bills

For the past several weeks, the sausage-making in Austin has ramped up. After much discussion over the different versions of the House budget ($218.2 billion) and Senate budget ($217.7 billion), the two ended up with only a $500 million difference between them. Overall, that isn’t too bad for a budget that represents the 15th largest political economy in the world (after the nation of Spain). The House balances its budget by dipping into the Economic Stabilization Fund, or Rainy Day Fund, for $2.5 billion; the Senate balances its budget by delaying a transfer of funds set aside for the Department of Transportation from one budget year to the next.

Conference Committee Appointed

The Lt. Governor appointed his representatives to the state budget conference committee that will be charged with reconciliation of the House and Senate versions of the budgets.  The Speaker also named his members to this committee. This committee will reconcile the House and Senate budgets into one budget bill to be sent to Governor Abbot at the end of the session.

House

Senate

Zerwas, John

Nelson, Jane

David, Sarah (Article II)

Schwertner, Charles (Article II)

Ashby, Trent (Article III)

Kolkhorst, Lois (Article III)

Gonzales, Larry

Huffman, Joan (Article V)

Longoria, Oscar

Hinojosa, Chuy

*Article II deals with Health and Human Services Funding, Article III deals with educational funding, and Article V deals with TDCJ and CMC funding.

Meanwhile, each of the two chambers has gotten down to business, sending legislation for consideration by the other. 

Among the bills still under discussion are the following.


A Tale of Two Retirement Bills

Many of you may have heard that Senator Paul Bettencourt has filed two bills related to the Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS) and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). We’ve received some questions about these, so I wanted to provide a brief overview. One point to emphasize: As currently written, both bills note that any changes would apply only to new hires, not to current state employees or retirees.

  • SB 1751 would give ERS and TRS the authority to establish defined-contribution plans (similar to a 401K) or hybrid retirement plans to provide retirement benefits to newly hired employees in place of the current defined-benefit plan (which is more like a traditional pension). As currently written, any changes would only impact new hires. Among the questions to be answered: how would the solvency of the current defined-benefit plan be affected if future new hires do not contribute to it? It is important to emphasize that this bill wouldn’t require ERS or TRS to create these types of plans. It would only provide them with the authority to do so.
  • SB 1750 would require the State Pension Review Board to contract with an actuarial firm to study the cost-effectiveness and feasibility of implementing a hybrid retirement plan (a combination of defined-benefit and defined-contribution plans) for newly hired state employees and teachers. 

Both bills are currently in the State Affairs Committee, where they have yet to be heard.

 

HB2249 (Parents Right to Know).

Childhood immunization has been a health and safety concern for parents, the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Pediatric Society for several sessions. A growing number of individuals in Texas are electing to NOT vaccinate their children for various reasons. Current law permits those parents to seek an exemption to the law. However, physicians and the parents of children who are immune-compromised have grave concern about children’s exposure to vaccine-preventable diseases in the classroom setting as vaccination rates decline.  The chart below demonstrates the sharp rise in unimmunized students in Texas.
Vaccination Rates

These immunization advocates seek to have each school post the percentage of unimmunized students enrolled at each of their campuses so that parents can make an informed choice regarding where their child attends school. Believe it or not, there are grade schools in Texas that have more than 50 percent of their students in the “non-vaccinated” category, especially in some private schools. The cities of Austin and Tyler both have large anti-vaccination contingents. The House Public Health Committee took up this measure this week and hosted a lengthy discourse between those for and against the legislation.

This hotly debated bill was heard again on Tuesday April 25 with a large showing of physicians and child health advocates providing testimony in support of increasing the state’s vaccination rates. 

 

SB6 and HB2899   

These are extremely different versions of the hotly debated “bathroom bill.” The Senate has taken a strict interpretation of the definition of “gender” to mean that the biological sex listed on a person’s birth certificate shall determine the person’s right to use a marked bathroom. The House has taken a different approach that would more globally address the issue, saying that government “may not enforce an order, ordinance, or other measure to protect a class of persons from discrimination to the extent that the order, ordinance, or other measure regulates access to multiple-occupancy restrooms, showers, or changing facilities.”

Economic issues have entered into this debate. The Senate has focused on protection of women as the reason for passing its bill. The House has focused more on the adverse impact to the tourism, entertainment and sports economy of the state as a reason to not pass the restrictions, which many would interpret as discriminatory to the LGBTQ community. Although the bill falls short of the desired outcome by many, it did win approval from NCAA and others in the entertainment and sports industry as they withdrew their threats to avoid Texas for major events.

Governor Abbott indicated on April 18 that he would support the House version of the proposed bill rather than the more restrictive version offered by the Senate. But there is still a lot of work to be done in the Conference Committee before a final version of a “bathroom bill” is offered to either chamber for approval.

 

Sanctuary Cities Legislation              

Although neither the federal nor the state government can define a sanctuary city, the term has been used to mean a city or site that protects individuals who are noncompliant with established laws of the land. In the legislation under debate this week, the definition—although still vague—would imply reference to city governments that do not turn over known lawbreakers who are found to be undocumented to the federal immigration authorities for deportation. Passionate speeches were delivered on Wednesday, April 26, regarding the impact of deportation on families and children of individuals found to be in breech of the law. 

 

Callender Rounds in Austin

UTMB President Dr. David Callender spent Tuesday, April 25 calling on a dozen legislators and committee staff members to underscore UTMB’s positions and communicate the university’s needs for the next biennium. The president’s message focused on the following:

  • Thanking members for their past support for UTMB
  • Requesting restoration of UTMB’s Special Items in the amount of $13.8 million
  • Requesting the restoration of the $8.9 million reduction to indigent health care funding
  • Proposing an alternative pathway for managing the cost of health care services in the TDCJ Correctional Managed Care program, thereby mitigating the Senate’s proposed $100 million reduction of funding for that program
  • Providing recommendations related to a proposed fixed reimbursement rate for a special population designated by the Senate
  • Requesting support of the budget-neutral request for mission-specific health care funding for UTMB, which would align with how other state hospitals are funded.

Frank and honest conversations are the hallmark of successful advocacy. Dr. Callender is a seasoned veteran of that art. Stamina helps as well. He logged four miles of walking within the capitol complex, for more than 9,000 steps, and he climbed 19 sets of stairs!

 

Next on the Agenda

Conference Committee members will now delve into reams of spreadsheets and budget justifications as they deliberate how to effectively address the needs of the state for the future. Most of us do that monthly as we address our personal finances, but these individuals are dealing with a budget in excess of $200 billion. And, the course they chart through the allocation of resources will determine the future health, education, safety and quality of life in our state. It is not a casual or easy task to meet that responsibility and to do it in a manner that satisfies every Texan.

We will be letting you know how that process moves along.

By the way, did you know that there were over 7,000 bills filed this year?  Fewer than 1,000 will make it out of both legislative chambers and on to the Governor’s desk for action.