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Legislature Adjourns: Update on Key Business and Education Policies

Published Jun 01, 2021 by Steven Will

Future of Texas

PUBLICATION NOTE: The Partnership will publish a comprehensive report on the 87th Legislative Session by June 15. In the meantime, please enjoy the final installment of our weekly update.

Final Week In Review: End of the 87th Session
In the final days of the 87th Legislative Session, an important school accountability bill gained agreement from both chambers, while a key economic development program did not pass. Just before midnight on Sunday, most Democratic Representatives departed from the floor and broke the House's quorum. Their absence prevented a final vote on Senate Bill 7.

Governor Greg Abbott responded with a call for a special session. The Governor has the exclusive power to call the Legislature into special session and to determine what issues will be on the agenda. The Governor has not announced the timing of a special session or what issues the Legislature may consider. A special session was planned for this fall to consider redistricting, when data would be available from the U.S. Census Bureau. It is unclear if Governor Abbott will add issues to a special session that includes redistricting or if he will call a separate special session.

Budget Sent to Governor Abbott
The House and Senate approved the 2022-2023 biennial state budget for Governor Abbott's signature. The bill spends $116 billion in General Revenue and $248 billion over the two-year period. Public education reforms under House Bill 3 remain fully funded. Higher education funding also received an increase for enrollment growth. Funding for transportation and other budget areas remains largely flat from the current year. The Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, is estimated to reach $11 billion, and it was not utilized to fund the new budget. As a result of actions taken by the House in the final hours of session, Governor Abbott threatened to line-item veto the budget article that funds the legislative branch.

School Accountability Reforms Pass
On the final day of the legislative session, the House and Senate approved Senate Bill 1365 by Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston). The bill ensures the continuation of the state's accountability system and enhances intervention and sanction measures for perennially failing campuses and public school districts.

Key provisions of the legislation include the clarification of the investigative authority of the Commissioner of Education and the Commissioner's ability to issue sanctions, appoint a board of managers, and provide intervention support services. The bill clarifies the definition of a D-rated campus as it relates to potential sanctions or intervention measures. A rating of D is now considered unacceptable performance under the accountability system.

Finally, the legislation allows for all public school districts and charter schools not to be held accountable for campus and district ratings during the 2021-22 school year due to the pandemic's extreme impact on students' learning loss. Campuses and school districts will still be rated on the A-F accountability scale, but sanctions and interventions required under this law for multiple years of failure will not go into effect until the 2022-23 school year. The bill is now on Governor Abbott's desk, and we anticipate his final approval soon.

Chapter 313 Fails to Pass
After failing to meet a parliamentary deadline, House Bill 4242 by Representative Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) which would have provided a two-year extension for the Chapter 313 economic development incentive program stalled in the Senate. The Chapter 313 program will expire on December 31, 2022. The short-term extension was the final effort to keep the program intact after a failed attempt earlier in the session to pass legislation that would have made broad reforms to the program. 

COVID Business Liability Protections Pass
Senate Bill 6, by Senator Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), heads to the Governor for his signature. The bill enacts a Partnership legislative priority, and one of Governor Abbott's emergency items, of providing legal liability protections related to the pandemic. The bill provides full defense against lawsuits for businesses, health care institutions, governmental entities, schools and higher education facilities acting in good faith and within posted government safety protocols from those who contract a disease during a pandemic. We expect Governor Abbott to sign this measure into law.

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Survey: Majority of Houston Employers Encouraging Vaccines, More Flexible with Remote Work 

6/9/21
With the state of Texas now fully open and COVID-19 cases in decline, Houston companies are grappling with how to resume operations in a safe and secure fashion that also conveys a sense of normalcy.  The Greater Houston Partnership conducted a wide-ranging survey among its members to gauge sentiment on issues including vaccine requirements for employees, return-to-workplace timelines and ongoing health and safety practices. A total of 141 firms responded to the survey conducted June 3-7.  The vast majority of Houston-area employers (87%) are encouraging but not requiring vaccinations among their employees, with about a quarter using some form of tangible incentive (monetary, time off, etc.) to gain compliance. Just 8% are requiring employees to get vaccinated. Fifty-two percent of companies said they are tracking employee vaccinations, and of those a little over a third are requiring proof while another third are conducting non-anonymous surveys.  In terms of health and safety protocols, 55% of respondent companies said they require non-vaccinated employees to wear a mask while the rest are split between mandating masks for all (22%) and not mandating masks at all (24%). Just 21% said they have eliminated social distancing indoors altogether while the rest either require social distancing among all employees (42%) or only among the non-vaccinated (38%). Asked about the health and safety measures being deployed in the workplace, the top answers were enhanced cleaning services, limiting elevator capacity and providing individual safety equipment and supplies.   Following a year that saw significant job losses across the region, companies are working to regain their footing. Asked how their employee count has changed since the pandemic began in March 2020, 49% said it has remained the same while the remaining companies were evenly split (nearly 26%) among those who have increased staff and those who have cut staff. Of those companies that lost staff, 38% experienced a decline of 6 to 10% while 21% saw losses of 11 to 20%.  Asked about plans to resume on-site operations, nearly 20% of respondents said they never closed while another 47% either said they had already reopened or would do so this month. Another 9% expect to reopen in July or August, and 20% will open in September or later. Houston area employers appear to be more open to flexible work arrangements post-pandemic. Employers were asked about their plans for remote work in the near-term (1 to 3 months) and medium-term (3-12 months). See the results in the chart below.  Click to expand Employers’ top outside concerns regarding reopen are: staff vaccinations (72% rated it extremely/very important), community vaccination rate (65%) and community herd immunity (60%).  “We conducted this survey to help local employers determine how others are handling the tough issues surrounding reopening," said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. "What we found is that there is a definitive cultural shift in how some companies are approaching issues like remote work. They also told us that vaccinations are the most important part of their return to onsite operations. This is all significant data as companies try to regain what they’ve lost during the pandemic and return employees to work.”   Click here to see the results of the survey. 
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