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Agenda Texas: Water and Education Bills Take Next Steps

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: This week marked the end of a long legislative journey for one bill and the beginning for another.

House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen

This week marked a beginning and an end for some major legislation from the 2013 session. On Monday Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation to revamp the state’s public education accountability system and graduation requirements.

“These bills will improve the workforce readiness, will expand career and technology education courses and better guide students from the high school or college classroom into those careers with the most job opportunities," Perry said.

The bill signing was seen by supporters as a positive response to over-testing in Texas, while still maintaining educational rigor.

"Our graduation rates are up. Participation in Advanced Placement courses is up. The need for remedial classes is going down. We’ve made strides in closing the gaps in minority achievement," Perry said during the bill signing. "We’ve set the bar high in our state, and our students are consistently rising to that challenge.”

House Bill 5, among other things, cuts the number of high school STAAR tests from 15 to five. That had some business groups including the Texas Association of Business and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce fighting against it. The TAB says the state has increased academic standards over the past few decades, but now several courses are no longer required for high school graduation, like chemistry, physics, algebra II and English IV.  

As those education measures came in for a smooth landing, a big public debate was just taking off — and it’s all about water.

“It’s historic, it’s critical, it’s monumental. Texas needs it today and for years to come," said Heather Harward, executive director of the H2O4Texas Coalition, which supports a constitutional proposition to spend $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to jump-start water infrastructure projects. On Monday it launched its push to pass that amendment.

The group will now hit the streets to make sure people show up to vote in November’s constitutional election — not an easy task. Those elections traditionally have turnouts of between 5 and 8 percent. But Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy, thinks Texans have plenty of reasons to head to the polls.

“There isn’t a Texan out there that doesn’t intimately understand what drought means now," Huffman said. "Not only did it affect our economy, but it affected people's quality of life. And people in Texas are really looking at water differently, and I think understand that we’re going to have to fund our future when it comes to water.”

And with another dry, hot summer in the forecast, H2O’s Harward doesn’t see the concern over water diminishing.

“While we hate to endure and see that happen again, it does really embody exactly why we have to stay on top of this issue, and make sure that voters remember how essential water is to public health and the economy," Harward said.

Tea Party and other conservative groups are not happy with the use of rainy day funds to help pay for water projects. And some organized opposition to the constitutional amendment is expected.

The current special legislative session on redistricting also has a couple of new additions: Perry announced on Tuesday that he’s adding abortion legislation and mandatory sentences for minors committing capital offenses.

Those join transportation funding, which was added Monday, for the 30-day session. The Senate has its first hearing Wednesday on a joint resolution that would divert at least $1 billion a year that would have gone into the Rainy Day Fund to pay for roads.

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