Don’t forget the last day to register to vote for the March primary is Monday, February 5th. To find out how to register to vote, where you can vote in your local communities, and educate yourself on what will be on the ballot, please visit www.votetexas.gov.
Here are five things happening around your state this month:
1. Business and Commerce
The Senate Business and Commerce Committee recently held a hearing on three charges, including insurance data collected on Hurricane Harvey, information on the stability of the health insurance market in Texas, and an update on the implementation of several health insurance-related bills from the 85th Session.
Since Harvey, the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) has collected data from insurance companies on the number of claims they’ve received, the amount those claims have paid out, and the average time it takes to close a claim. TDI shared the information they had collected, as well as their intention to continue to collect information as recovery continues. This is being done to watch for outliers in insurance companies who may be denying a large number of claims or taking extra time to pay out claims.
2. Special Education
In the Fall of 2016, a report was released regarding a performance based monitoring program the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had implemented since 2004, which sets an 8.5 percent benchmark for special education enrollment in public schools. The system was originally created to prevent schools from identifying students for special education when it was not required.
After criticisms arose about this program, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education began and they recently determined that Texas had violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were being properly evaluated and receiving an adequate public education. TEA must now provide documentation to show the state is monitoring the problem, and develop a plan and timeline to ensure that each school district will evaluate students which may have been denied services previously. TEA has hired more statewide special education support staff to ensure school districts and teachers are receiving guidance on how to identify and educate students with disabilities.
3. School Finance Reform Commission
During the 85th Special Legislative Session, the 13-member Texas Commission on Public School Finance was created. The Commission held their first hearing at the end January. They discussed the legal framework of the state’s current school finance system, the student population in the over 1,100 school districts, as well as the education outcomes for students in the state. Over the next year, the Commission will look at ways to improve the public school finance system, through revamping the current system or by new funding methods. The Commission is expected to deliver a report to legislators by December 31st with their ideas.
4. Free Speech and College Campuses
This past year, there have been many concerns that free speech for students on college campuses is being hindered. At the end January, the Senate State Affairs Committee will hold a hearing to evaluate any restrictions that Texas student may face in regards to their Freedom of Speech rights and their ability to express their views on their college campuses. They will also evaluate the freedoms of the press, religion and assembly. They will also recommend policy changes to be made in the upcoming legislative session to protect First Amendment rights and enhance the free speech environment on campuses.
5. Foster Care in the State
During the 85th Legislative session, the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which was previously housed within the Health and Human Services Commission, was made its own agency. They also received approximately $3.5 million in additional funding, for pay raises for current caseworkers and to hire more than 1,000 new caseworkers over the next two years. They will also be able to increase payments to foster care families and other providers.
This was done in response to a ruling by a U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack two years ago, which stated that the state’s foster care system violated children’s civil rights. DFPS has been working with federal appointed specialists to evaluate how the state oversees the child welfare system.
Even with these changes, the same federal judge recently ruled that Texas will continue to need oversight for how it cares for its most vulnerable children. They must make a top-down overhaul of the way it works with children and families, expand its foster home options and make it easier for children to report abuse.
Robert Nichols, Republican senator for the Third District in the Texas Senate, publishes a weekly column (monthly during the summer months) entitled: “My Five Cents.” To contact Sen. Nichols, call his Home District Office in Jacksonville at (903) 589-3003.