AUSTIN, Texas — One proposal to boost Texas’ beleaguered child welfare system is moving closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk — but not before a heated debate over vaccinations.
Abbott has declared fixing child protective services a priority in the face of rising investigator caseloads and child deaths. The House on Wednesday tentatively approved making some changes to case management and training.
Tensions over vaccinations flared before the final vote, though. Republican Rep. Bill Zedler, a prominent vaccination opponent, successfully added a ban on welfare workers giving emergency vaccinations to children removed from troubled homes without parental consent.
Another amendment to give girls in temporary state custody a vaccine against human papillomavirus infections failed. High-risk HPV can cause cancer.
A federal judge in 2015 ruled that Texas’ foster care system is unconstitutionally broken.
HOUTON PENSIONS FIX
The Texas Senate is rejecting House changes to a bill cutting billions in future costs from Houston’s cash-strapped police and firefighter pension plans — meaning both chambers will have to reconcile their differences in a conference committee.
Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman was the pension proposal’s original sponsor. She said Wednesday that alterations the House made while approving her bill last week were “bad for Houston taxpayers” and “shockingly fiscally irresponsible.”
Plagued by investments that didn’t meet sky-high return expectations, Houston is facing about $8.1 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The mayor has threatened layoffs if things don’t change.
The bill decreases plan benefits and lowers future investment yield targets. But the House allowed firefighters more time to calculate their pension costs, which Huffman says could threaten the entire plan.
RELIGIOUS REFUSAL OF ADOPTIONS
A bill headed to the Texas Senate would allow publicly funded foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with non-Christian, unmarried or gay prospective parents because of religious objections.
The state House gave final approval 93-49 on Wednesday after lengthy debate the previous night. The state Senate is even more conservative, though passage isn’t guaranteed with adjournment of the legislative session just weeks away.
Sponsors say the bill is designed to keep faith-based organizations offering child placement services. They say LGBT couples will be able to find agencies without religious objections.
Many adoption agencies in Texas already admit to not working with adoptive parents who are single, gay or non-Christian. The bill could keep them from being sued, but civil advocates call it funding discrimination with tax dollars.
DECLINING SCHOOL SPENDING
Texas’ per-pupil spending continues to fall farther below the national average, despite the state Supreme Court declaring the public school finance system barely constitutional last year.
The Texas arm of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, announced Wednesday data showing state spending per K-12 student declined by an average of $143 to $10,017 from the 2015-2016 school year to 2016-2017.
Texas ranks 36th nationwide in classroom spending, $2,555 less per student than the national average which rose to $12,572. Texas’ booming population also saw statewide classroom enrollment rise about 80,000 children over the same period.
The Legislature cut $5.4 billion from schools in 2011, prompting a sweeping lawsuit. The Texas Supreme Court last May found the state’s school finance system deeply flawed but constitutional.
IMMIGRANT DETENTION CENTERS
The Texas Senate has formally approved licensing family immigrant detention centers as child care providers.
Wednesday’s 20-10 vote sends the bill to the state House. Passage isn’t guaranteed, though, since the legislative session ends in less than three weeks.
The bill allows Texas to license two family lockdowns, despite court rulings that say such facilities don’t meet requirements to care for kids. It also lets detention facilities hold families longer, which advocates say furthers children’s psychological harm.
The private prison company GEO Group has lobbied for the bill, which could help its 830-bed Karnes Residential Facility remain open.
That lockup, which mainly holds women and children seeking asylum from Central America, earns GEO $55 million annually.
Recently, Karnes’ population has plummeted as fewer immigrant families cross the border into the U.S.
The House is working until late yet again Wednesday but making only slow progress on a very long legislative calendar. Midnight Thursday is the deadline for the House to pass bills that originate in that chamber, meaning hundreds of pieces of legislation will all but die if not approved by then. No issue is truly dead in the Legislature until final adjournment on May 29, but the road to House passage gets much tougher after Thursday. The Senate, which has more time before its key passage deadlines, is scheduled to return to work at 11 a.m. Thursday.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“While I understand the desire to maintain the public trust in the FBI, the timing of James Comey’s firing is troubling, especially since the Justice Department Inspector General was conducting an independent investigation into Comey’s handling of the (Hillary) Clinton email case,” — Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, reacting Thursday to President Donald Trump’s termination of FBI director James Comey the day before.