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Texas Senate approves teacher bonuses, benefits — but not pay raises

The Texas Senate passed a bill that would provide funding for teacher bonuses and retirement benefits, slashing a controversial provision that would require school districts to increase teacher salaries without additional state money.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, are shown during a special session debate on July 25, 2017. 

The Texas Senate on Tuesday approved legislation to give teachers bonuses and to improve retired teachers' health benefits  — but only after the bill's author removed a controversial provision requiring school districts to cover the cost of teacher pay raises.

The upper chamber voted 28-3 to give initial approval to Senate Bill 19, authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, which would borrow money from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to pay for $193 million in statewide teacher bonuses and inject $212 million into a faltering state-run health insurance program for retired teachers. If the measure gets final approval from the Senate, it will head to the House. (Update, July 26: The bill received final approval from the Senate and now heads to the House.)

The original version of SB 19 would have required school districts to increase teacher pay by $1,000 starting in 2019 — without a firm commitment of a requisite increase in state funding. 

Nelson instead amended the bill to completely remove that requirement.

"Let's take that off the table," Nelson said, of the controversial provision. "I want to continue to look at finding the resources to give our teachers a well-deserved pay raise." She said that the Legislature would make teachers a priority next session but that it was impossible to promise funding for the raises in a future budget.

Teachers and representatives from education organizations said at Friday's public hearing on SB 19 that school districts would have to fire employees and cut programs to raise salaries for classroom teachers.

SB 19 would provide $193 million in bonuses over two years, starting in September 2018, for long-term teachers with six or more years of experience. The funding for that and for the retired teachers would come from delaying a payment to health care companies providing Medicaid from September to August 2019. "My intent is that there would be no impact on services," Nelson said Tuesday.

During the regular session, legislators voted to put $483 million into the Teacher Retirement System for the next two years but cut some benefits for retired teachers, leading to higher deductibles. Now, both chambers are motivated to give those retired teachers, who have absorbed most of the health care premium increases over the years, some financial relief. 

The $212 million would help cut deductibles for retirees younger than age 65 by half, lower costs for retirees with adult disabled children and reduce premiums for retirees 65 and older, Nelson said.

Republicans and Democrats expressed concern that the bill would only fund bonuses and health benefits over the next two years, without a promise of long-term relief. “Where is that money going to come from? We’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” said Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

A few senators tried to find that long-term funding on the floor Tuesday. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, proposed an unsuccessful amendment that would have increased the state contribution to the Teacher Retirement System. Nelson said that would be "cost-prohibitive" this special session. And Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, unsuccessfully tried to get any savings from state border security funding directed toward teacher bonuses and retirement benefits. Nelson said there were "too many unknowns" in the proposal.

Gov. Greg Abbott included teacher pay raises on his list of priorities for the July-August special session. He has not publicly endorsed a way to fund the proposal, saying in recent media appearances that it was his role to get the discussion started.

“There are a lot of really good ideas,” he said in a recent radio interview. “The most important thing was to start this concept in motion. I thought it was very important for us to increase teacher pay, which is why I put it on the agenda for the special session. And then after I did that, a lot of smart legislators have come up with a lot of innovative ideas about ways we can pay for it.”

The vote happened the same day the House Appropriations Committee heard legislation to inject $212 million into the Teacher Retirement System using the Rainy Day Fund, a state pot of emergency funds. Nelson has said she would not agree to dip into that fund, calling the House's funding proposal a "false promise" and a short-term solution.

The Senate Education Committee is considering a bill that would take funds from the Texas Lottery that already go to public schools and put it toward teacher pay raises.

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