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Ahead of 2017 Session, Straus Issues Directives for House

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Fourteen months ahead of the next legislative session, House Speaker Joe Straus issued more than 150 interim charges Wednesday, directing committees to study a diverse list of topics like the effectiveness of the state's role in border security and the effect of the plummeting cost of oil on the local economy.

“The next legislative session is more than a year away, but the work of that session starts now,” Straus said. “While these assignments cover a wide variety of issues, they focus on three core priorities: supporting private-sector growth, creating opportunity through education, and continuing to make government more transparent and accountable.”

Two school finance-related charges are among those Straus assigned to the House Public Education Committee: examining the Cost of Education Index, a long outdated system of weights the state uses to determine how much to fund schools per student, and evaluating school districts' local debt and demand for facilities.

The House education panel will also look at the hot-button topic of school choice, an issue that has pitted the lower chamber— where many lawmakers have opposed private school voucher programs — against the Senate in recent legislative sessions. The charges instruct the committee to review research on school choice programs from other states and "recommend whether an expansion of school choice in Texas is needed, and suggest ways to ensure that any school receiving public support is held accountable for its academic and financial performance."

Presiding over the interim hearings will be among the last duties of current Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who announced he would not run for re-election at the end of the last session.

There is some overlap between Straus' charges to the House and the interim charges Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued last month to the Senate, including requests for committees to look at issues such as oil field theft, eminent domain, groundwater issues and the property tax appraisal system. Both Republicans also directed agencies to explore the state's policies for research involving human fetal tissue following a release of undercover videos involving Planned Parenthood related to that issue.

Both chambers will also look at whether lawmakers could eliminate the unpopular franchise tax paid by businesses next session.

Both lawmakers also directed their respective chambers to monitor the implementation of open and campus carry legislation enacted by lawmakers earlier this year. Unlike Patrick, Straus did not ask lawmakers to examine measures that would affirm Texans' religious liberty protections.

Another outgoing Straus lieutenant, Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, will oversee more than a dozen interim charges including one looking at the effectiveness of the Department of Public Safety’s use of funds for border security operations. During this year's session, House Democrats argued that lawmakers were allocating $800 million to border security funding without including metrics to ensure that the money was being effectively used by state agencies, particularly DPS.

With lawmakers expected to start the 2017 session with a Rainy Day Fund holding a record $10.4 billion, Straus also directed the Appropriations Committee to look at whether the fund should be tapped to address "unfunded liabilities or retiring state debt." He also asked the committee to explore the validity of a claim made by some state lawmakers that the fund needs a healthy balance to preserve the state's high credit rating.

The House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, which has subpoena power, could wade into the thorny issue of so-called dark money spent by third-party groups to influence the political process. Straus directed the committee to "assess whether required financial disclosures by those making governmental decisions adequately inform the public of potential conflicts of interest."

Following emotional debates about statues of Confederate leaders on the University of Texas at Austin campus and other public spaces, Straus asked the House Administration Committee to "review the artistic, social, and historical intent and significance of the statuary on the Capitol grounds, with particular focus on the historical context represented, and provide recommendations to the State Preservation Board."

Several charges were included at the request of individual members, according to Straus' office.

Among the other charges:

  • A House Select Committee on Emerging Issues in Law Enforcement will "study body camera policies and best practices," including how the state should handle "data storage, records retention, the Public Information Act, and evidentiary procedures."
  • The House Committee on Higher Education will "study current policies and initiatives at institutions of higher education ... and make recommendations toward the prevention and elimination of sexual assault on college campuses."

Kiah Collier, Ross Ramsey, Morgan Smith and Matthew Watkins contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/11/04/straus-issues-more-150-interim-charges/.