AUSTIN (Nexstar) — State Senator Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, filed Senate Bill 8 Friday evening, giving a detailed look into top Republicans’ priority to use state money to subsidize private education.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick chose Senate Bill 8 to carry one of his top 30 priorities of “empowering parental rights — including school choice.” Governor Greg Abbott has advocated for creating state-funded “education savings accounts” that will give money to Texans to pay for education-related expenses, including private school tuition.

Sen. Creighton said the goal is to provide as much as $8,000 to families with education savings accounts.

“I think we’re in a different day and time in the outlook on educational opportunities than we even were five years ago. And I think that’s why there’s been a grassfire across this nation for parental choice and educational empowerment,” Sen. Creighton said. “This is education freedom, this is making sure that the state of Texas falls in line where we should be leading.”

“We’ve seen [education savings accounts] work very effectively in other states, and we’ve also already seen them work here in the state of Texas,” said Abbott to a crowd in Tyler Thursday night, referring to state-subsidized tuition for special needs students. “What we want to do this session is expand that program so that every parent will have the ability to choose the education that is best for their child.”

The plan has faced stark opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Taking money out of the public school system to help a few that already have more choices than the kids that I represent do, I think it’s just categorically wrong. I’m for all kids in Texas, not just the ones that live next to a private school,” said State Representative Ken King, R-Canadian, who sits on the House Public Education Committee.

King argues private school subsidies will help only urban and suburban students at the expense of his rural constituents because rural areas have fewer or no private schools. He is also skeptical that private schools would want state money because that may subject them to state requirements.

“When you ask a private school to take the STAAR test or participate in the A-F accountability system or take their proportionate number of our special education students, I don’t think they’re going to be interested in a voucher because those things would eat up whatever they made off the voucher,” he said.

House Democrats are also opposed to the plan.

“We are very laser focused right now on increasing our investments in public education, stopping the defunding of education through private school vouchers, and to make sure that we’re paying our teachers and educators living wages,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Trey Martinez-Fischer said.

Creighton said funding for education savings accounts will not come from the state’s public education budget. He said the state can both fully fund public education and fund this program.

“We are all fully intending to lift up public schools with the funding they need and also provide education opportunities to those that need it most. And those can reconcile,” Creighton said. “Look, anyone that ever said that looking at education savings accounts or other education opportunities for our kids is something that attacks public schools, I think that’s just an incredibly divisive, untrue, unnecessary narrative that shouldn’t be fostered by anyone.”

Abbott dismisses these critiques by comparing them to the criticism of charter schools in Texas.

“The concerns that have been raised are really a repeat of what was raised twenty years ago,” Abbott said in Tyler. “After twenty years of charter schools with more than 350,000 students in charter schools across Texas, schools are not being defunded.”

Veterinarians worry about proposed Texas vet board changes

Lawmakers are trying to reform the state agency in charge of Texas animal doctors, but some veterinarians are pushing back against the current treatment plan.

Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, filed a bill last week that would temporarily attach the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME) to another state agency, in order to help with its ongoing data and management issues.

Holland serves as the vice chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the performance of state agencies. Sunset reports have called out TBVME several times over the last six years and “repeatedly documented” problems with “unreliable and inconsistent data.”

In 2022, after these reviews, a KXAN investigation revealed that the problems persisted. KXAN found dozens of disciplinary records still missing from the agency’s public licensee look-up website, which could prevent pet owners from seeing a veterinarian’s disciplinary history. KXAN also found a backlog of complaints and investigations at the agency, leaving complainants and doctors, alike, waiting for resolution.

At the time, TBVME leaders pointed to ongoing trouble with finding and implementing the right software or database for its agency information. Eventually, the board president and executive director stepped down.

In January 2023, lawmakers on Sunset voted to take further action, recommending the legislature attach TBVME to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) for the next four years.

“They know how to take on licensees and different agencies and help them with their systems: their programs, their software. These are all things that are needed,” Holland said of TDLR. “The vet board in its current state wasn’t demonstrating to Sunset or the Legislature that they could handle those things.”

If passed by the legislature, the bill would require any rules or powers currently related to TBVME’s duties to be approved by TDLR and its oversight commission instead. The current Veterinary Board would serve as an “advisory committee” to TDLR, according to the bill.

The Texas Veterinary Medical Association, which advocates on behalf of veterinarians in the state, said it has “significant concerns” about this move.

In a letter outlining the concerns, the association’s president Dr. Tamra Walthall called TDLR “an excellent resource” to help TBVME improve its internal processes and procedures. However, she argues “it simply lacks the specialized subject matter expertise necessary to run a medicine-focused agency.”

One of the association’s members, Austin-area veterinarian Dr. John Faught, told KXAN he would have liked to see other agencies and subject matter experts advise the veterinary board, alongside TDLR.

“I think there are a lot of agencies that have a knowledge base on how to handle complaint resolutions like that, that state board could learn from and work with, but I don’t know that they need to be put underneath them as a whole,” Faught said.

He said he believes his industry should have a board that understands the nuances of veterinary medicine.

Holland said he understands veterinarians are concerned about TBVME’s autonomy long-term and knows they do not want to see veterinary licenses issued by another agency. He emphasized that the bill only calls for a temporary, but necessary, change.

“We’re not trying to move their license to TDLR. We want them to issue their own licenses and be the Texas Vet Board again, but we need the processes and systems and the people and the help that TDLR brings to the table to do this,” he said. “We want them to be proud of their license. We want to be proud of the board that oversees and regulates their industry. We don’t quite have that right now.”

The new executive director of TBVME, Brittany Sharkey, told KXAN the board has brought in new high-level staff and made other changes over the last six months.

“In that time, we prioritized our enforcement capabilities to ensure that we are protecting the public and their animals. We have conducted more compliance inspections this fiscal year than the previous two years combined. We’ve reduced the backlog of cases awaiting settlement conference and the Board is on track to approve more disciplinary orders than in the previous two years combined,” Sharkey said. “While we know we have a long way to go to restore the trust of the public and the legislature, we are confident that the agency is on the right track. We look forward to working with the legislature and the ongoing conversations about the future of the agency.”

The bill also requires TDLR and TBVME to create a “memorandum of understanding” by October, outlining how the agencies would work together and which TBVME staff would receive training. The memorandum also requires these agencies to consult with another state agency, the Department of Information Resources, for help procuring a “suitable” database to address TBVME’s needs.

“I think this was a wake-up call for the board to say, ‘Maybe we should be interacting more with our staff, our executive directors, our legal counsel, our programs,'” Holland said.

Walthall’s letter outlined other requests for lawmakers this session. For example, the association called funding requests made in years past by prior TBVME leadership “inadequate” and urged the legislature to increase funding for the agency, by granting this year’s funding request made by the new leadership.

The association is also pushing for the creation of a process to allow TBVME to dismiss meritless complaints. Walthall’s letter said the current code requires the board to investigate every complaint it receives and claims that this has contributed to its “backlog problem.”

While Holland’s bill does not address these items and is specifically focused on the Sunset recommendation, he said he has seen an earnest effort to make all the necessary changes and get the veterinary board back on track.

“It’s the full intention of the legislature for them to go back to a standalone board in 2027,” he said.

Senators unveil energy insurance program among plans to revamp power grid

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick gathered a bipartisan group of state senators on Thursday to announce a sweeping package of bills he argued will bolster the reliability of the power grid and lower energy costs, more than two years after the grid nearly collapsed during the 2021 February winter storm.

Senator Charles Schwertner, chairman of the Business and Commerce committee, first introduced a new “Texas Energy Insurance Program” that Senate Bill 6 would create. He said this will add 10,000 megawatts of power to Texas’ energy supply.

“Texas needs its own backup generation when weather is bad,” he said. “This proposal puts new steel in the ground, ensures more electrons are flowing in our power lines.”

Senate Bill 6 also establishes a “state-backed, low-cost loan program,” which Schwertner compared to SWIFT, or the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. That program provides financial assistance to local water projects.

“This is not building a capacity market. It is an insurance product,” Schwertner said. “The energy-only market has been very successful here in Texas at keeping costs down. But it is again important to have a backup system so that Texans can be reassured that we have the power necessary in times of crisis.”

Senate Bill 7 is also in Patrick’s top 10 priorities. This bill aims to incentivize the creation of new dispatchable energy in a way Patrick argued would “level the playing field” between renewable and non-renewable energy.

The senators stressed the need for Texas to have more dispatchable energy — power that is easily distributed, usually come from sources like natural gas and power plants.

“Whether the wind’s blowing or the sun is shining or whatever else may be happening, it’s ready-to-go electricity,” said Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford.

The senators’ bill package includes seven other bills: SB 1287, SB 2010, SB 2011, SB 2012, SB 2013, SB 2014 and SB 2015.

The Sierra Club was quick to criticize the plan as a costly favor to fossil fuel interest groups.

“This could be very expensive for consumers,” said Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter’s conservation director Cyrus Reed. “I think who it benefits most is existing generators that own fossil fuel plants. They would be paid more in the market.”

Reed said he is not opposed to every detail that the senators are proposing, but thinks there are better approaches to ensuring reliability — like finding ways to decrease consumers’ demand.

“If we were to increase the amount that utilities have to spend on energy efficiency, reducing people’s demand, we could reduce that red line that’s going up and up,” he said.

Patrick said the Senate is collaborating with the House on the legislation, and he stressed the importance of coming to agreement on these reforms this session.

“The most important issue that I have talked about coming into this session is to address the issues with our power grid,” he said. “It will take several years…that’s why we have to start now, we can’t wait another session to do that.”

The Public Utility Commission of Texas also spent months developing its own plan for the grid, as required by legislation passed during the 2021 session. Chairman Peter Lake sent Nexstar a statement in response to the senator’s plans.

“We appreciate Lt. Governor Patrick’s and Chairman Schwertner’s leadership on these issues critical to Texas. We are all working together toward the same goal, reliable and affordable energy for Texans. They made clear today the PCM, which we unanimously adopted earlier this year, is an important part of the solution that will achieve this for the Texas grid,” Lake said. “We look forward to continuing this work with legislators to ensure reliability, affordability, and accountability in the Texas energy market today and for generations of Texans to come.”

Bill would make fixing apartment AC issues a priority

An east Austin woman featured in a KXAN investigation after her air conditioning went out in the middle of summer is now the inspiration for an effort to change Texas law.

A proposed bill filed by State Representative Sheryl Cole in the Texas Legislature would make air conditioning repair in apartment complexes a high priority and force landlords to take action if the AC stays off too long.

When KXAN Investigates Mike Rush first talked to Thelma Reyes in July 2022, she said, “I felt helpless. I couldn’t do anything.”

She was having a hard time keeping her cool.

“The thermostat read above 90 degrees,” she said. “It was hotter in here than it was outside.”

Reyes told KXAN her apartment’s AC didn’t work for five days, even though she complained to management.

“I called every day,” she said at the time. “Who’s going to come? When are you going to do it?”

With the help of her daughter, Reyes contacted her state representative, Sheryl Cole.

“They were not responsive to me initially or to KXAN, but this bill came about to remedy her situation, which they did do eventually,” Cole said.

Representative Cole said she decided state law needed to change.

“I wanted to do something to stand behind Mrs. Reyes and other people in similar situations,” Cole said.

  • Thelma Reyes and her Macaw in her east Austin apartment in July 2022 (KXAN Photo/Mike Rush)
  • KXAN Investigator Mike Rush and Texas State Rep. Sheryl Cole (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
  • Thelma Reyes showing in a picture the hot temperature registered on her thermostat in July 2022

Last July, the Austin Tenants Council told KXAN it was getting, on average, five calls a day from renters complaining of no AC.

Cole told Investigator Mike Rush at the time she would file legislation to hold apartment landlords and management accountable.

In late February 2023, she filed House Bill 2592. The measure requires apartment complexes statewide to provide air conditioning that maintains a temperature of 10 degrees below the recorded temperature outside the apartment or 85 degrees, whichever is lower.

The bill also requires landlords or management to repair or replace faulty air conditioning within five days or provide the renter an air conditioning unit or another place to stay until repairs are made.

Cole says if she gets pushback on the bill, it would most likely come from the Texas Apartment Association (TAA_.

KXAN Investigates reached out to the TAA. In a statement, the association’s vice president of government affairs, David Mintz, wrote the organization hasn’t taken a position on the bill yet.

“While enforcement is typically through local code officials, the property code provides additional remedies in situations that affect health or safety,” Mintz wrote. “We look forward to learning more about why current law is not sufficient and additional protections may be needed.”