Looking Forward to the 87th Legislature

By Van L. Davis, Ph.D., Principal and Founder, Foghlam Consulting, LLC

In a 1975 The Atlantic column, the late Molly Ivins described the start of the 63rd Texas Legislative session thusly: “The Texas Legislature consists of 181 people who meet for 140 days once every two years. This catastrophe has now occurred sixty-three times. The Legislature is, among other things, the finest free entertainment in Texas. Better than the zoo. Better than the circus.”[i] Last month, the Texas Legislature convened for the 87th time. And since this year’s session is anything but normal, we can rest assured that the next 140 days will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. 

Texas Government 101

The Texas Legislature, unlike most other state legislatures, meets every other year for a mere 140 days. This infrequency is a by-product of Reconstruction and Texans’ distrust of government after the Civil War. As a result, the new state constitutional framers opted to have the Legislature meet as infrequently as possible and still be able to conduct state business. And during sessions, that august body has only one piece of legislation that must be passed—a balanced budget.

 As with the United States Congress, a bill must pass both chambers and be signed by the chief executive, in this case the governor, in order to become a law. If the House and Senate versions of a passed bill are different, then a conference committee is chosen to hammer out the differences. The governor, much like the president, has veto power. If the Legislature doesn’t complete its business in those 140 days, the governor has the ability to call a 30 day special session that can only consider legislation related to the reasons for the special session to be called. Unlike the president, however, the governor’s role in the legislative process is fairly weak—another holdover from Reconstruction and Texans’ distrust of most government officials.

 The 87th Legislative Session

Although Democrats did manage to flip a few seats during the 2020 November elections, both the House and Senate remain Republican with 83 of the 131 representatives and 18 of the 31 senators belonging to the Republican party. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick remains in control of the Texas Senate while Representative Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) was elected Speaker of the House in January.

Under the best of circumstances, all eyes would be on the budget, but this year there is special scrutiny on the proposed Texas budget. Earlier this year, Comptroller Glenn Hegar released his general revenue projections for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years. Many feared that between the impact of the pandemic on sales tax revenue and the low price of crude oil, Texas would experience a significant drop in revenue. The good news is that the budget projection of $112.5 billion for the two fiscal years is considerably better than what was expected. The bad news is that both the House and the Senate proposed budgets are about $7 billion more than the Comptroller’s estimate.

Why all the talk of budget and not higher education policy? Simple. This year the budget will trump almost everything else as lawmakers try to balance the state budget in the midst of the worst public health crisis the state and nation have ever faced. This means that state social services, which even under the best of circumstances are stretched thin, will be stretched even thinner this session. It also means that legislators will be looking for any place they can find to cut expenses and balance the budget. Adding another layer of complexity to the budgeting woes this year is public elementary and secondary education funding. Texas has long underfunded public education, relying largely on local property taxes to fund local school districts. However, during the last legislative session, lawmakers adopted legislation that increased the amount of the state’s share of public education funding in an effort to slow the rise of local property taxes. As a result, we are entering a budget cycle where public K-12 funding will be higher, there will be a greater need for health and human services because of the pandemic, state revenue will be down, and there is no certainty that federal financial aid will come to the states any time soon. And we haven’t even started to talk about higher education funding. There is one potential silver lining—the state’s $8.5 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, aka the state’s rainy day fund. Legislators could draw from this fund to balance the state’s budget, but any draw down from the rainy day fund will be controversial and face dissent from fiscal conservatives.

 Higher Education and the 87th Legislature

So what might we expect regarding higher education and the 87th Legislative session? Even before the session started, the Legislature indicated that it would be interested in workforce development as well as educational efficiency measures. And certainly since the pandemic, it has signaled a renewed interest in distance education. For example, the House Higher Education Committee was given five interim charges to explore prior to this legislative session:     

  • monitor the implementation of higher education legislation from the 86th Legislative session;
  • evaluate current and future higher education infrastructure needs;
  • review progress toward the 60x30TX plan goals;
  • study the prevalence of online courses and degrees in higher education”; and
  • monitor the agencies and programs under the Committee’s jurisdiction such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Although there are a number of recommendations made in the House Higher Education Committee’s interim report, two sets of recommendations are especially significant for Texas community colleges involved in digital learning: recommendations related to the state’s 60x30TX goals as well as recommendations related to online education. Although there is no guarantee that the recommendations related to these charges will be adopted during the 87th Legislature, they do indicate the sort of higher education issues that might draw bipartisan support.

Interim Charge Three: Review progress toward the goals of 60x30TX

There are a number of components to this charge, but of special significance for community colleges is a review of “institutional strategies for responding to diverse and rapidly changing workforce needs and demands, including workforce education, industry certification, and degree programs to address healthcare shortages.” Recommendations for this charge include:

  • Supporting the Coordinating Board in evaluating and refining the goals of 60x30TX, especially goals associated with adult learners and “identifying and prioritizing” high-value credentials;
  • Expanding student financial aid;
  • Making additional investments in AdviseTX;
  • Evaluating the use of OER and improving the use of OER by faculty and students;
  • Improving broadband access, counseling, and advising;
  • Increasing work-based learning opportunities; and
  • Conducting a comprehensive review of community college taxing jurisdictions, service areas, and enrollment bases to “determine if any realignments are needed.”

 Interim Charge Four: Online courses and degrees

This interim charge directed the committee to “study the prevalence of online courses and degrees in higher education” in order to examine how online programs are accredited, student success and persistence in online courses and programs, and the labor market outcomes for students with primarily online courses and degrees. The work of DigiTex was prominently featured in the response for information associated with this interim charge, especially DigiTex’s work in open educational resources and course sharing. Recommendations for this charge include:

  • Consider measures that would improve student access to adequate hardware, software, and high-speed broadband;
  • Consider creating “a standardized vetting process” for colleges and universities to comply with FERPA, HIPPA, and institutional security and privacy standards; and
  • “Work with stakeholders to ensure that expanded use of online courses does not create new opportunities for cheating.”

 How to Stay Informed

Needless to say, this legislative session will be unlike anything we have ever experienced. Both chambers are continuing to determine what COVID safety measures they will take, especially in terms of remote testimony and committee hearings. This will make staying informed and being involved in the session especially challenging. However, there are ways you can easily track what is going on down at the pink dome this year.

  • Follow the fantastic coverage of The Texas Tribune at texastribune.org. The Tribune is the state’s leading nonprofit, public-service journalism site for reporting on Texas politics.
  • Sign up for bill and committee hearing updates at Texas Legislature Online at capitol.texas.gov. This site will let you subscribe to alerts on specific bills as well as various committee actions and requests for testimony.
  • Follow the work of the Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC) and their legislative policy priorities at tacc.org.
  • Follow the work of DigiTex, the Digital Higher Education Consortium of Texas, especially DigiTex’s incredible OER research and work, at digitex.org.

Every legislative session is unique and full of surprises, twists, and turns even under the best of circumstances. And this year, with a several billion dollar budget shortfall anticipated and global pandemic, will be no exception. As the Texas Observer recently opined, “The pandemic-induced financial crisis has set the stage for a legislative session that will be akin to a medical triage unit. Questions of who and what gets treated are already fueling political tensions within the Capitol.” Perhaps this session, more than any other recent session, will be instrumental in shaping the face of Texas higher education, especially for Texas community colleges on the frontline of educating millions of Texans as they face uncertain economic times.

[i] Molly Ivins. (1991). Inside the Austin fun house. In M. Ivins, Molly Ivins, can’t say that, can she? (pp. 8-22). Random House.