What to Watch: Pre-K, tax cuts, road funding, tuition repeal

By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Gov. Greg Abbott made expanding pre-kindergarten programs an "emergency item," fast-tracking bills on the topic through the Legislature.

Lawmakers have wasted little time filing major bills to expand early education, but there's disagreement on how best to do so.

One proposal by Georgetown Republican Rep. Marsha Farney and Dallas Democratic Rep. Eric Johnson would increase funding and offer full-day pre-kindergarten programs based on an incentive system, with school districts becoming eligible if they implement new educational standards that include teacher training and class-size caps.

A separate bill by Houston Republican Rep. Dan Huberty would provide up to $1,500 per student to school districts that meet new "high quality prekindergarten" standards, which entail fewer benchmarks than the other bill.

Huberty's plan more closely follows a model Abbott promoted while still a gubernatorial candidate - which could help its chances in the Legislature. The other proposal may also prove popular.

Here are some other upcoming issues to watch at the Texas Capitol:

TAX CUT IDEA DAY: The powerful Senate Finance Committee convenes Monday to discuss 15 bills seeking to ease property taxes, as well as offering tax cuts for businesses large and small. Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, the Senate's chief budget writer, has already unveiled a plan that would slash property and business taxes $4.6 billion in the 2016-2017 state budget, but says she's anxious to hear other tax-targeting ideas from her colleagues in both parties. There hasn't been this much fervor about tax relief since 2006, when deep property tax cuts passed by the Legislature created a budget shortfall that ultimately led to $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools. This time, top Republicans insist there's enough money to reduce taxes without cutting key state services - but some fiscal observers are wary.

ROAD FUNDING PROPOSAL IN HIGH GEAR: A major Senate plan to funnel billions of dollars into bolstering roads and highways beginning in 2018 by using part of the tax revenue generated by car sales statewide has sailed through the Transportation Committee. Because Abbott also made improving transportation infrastructure an emergency item, the topic is on a legislative fast-track - and may even be the first major piece of legislation considered in the Senate as early as this week.

A COMMITTEE FOR TUITION-REPEAL BILL?: Tea party-backed Rep. Jonathan Stickland took to the House floor to demand why his proposal repealing a 2001 law offering in-state tuition at public universities for some students in the country illegally had "been skipped." He suggested fellow Republican and House Speaker Joe Straus was sitting on the measure, which was filed Nov. 10 but hadn't been assigned to committee, even though bills filed after it had. Proposals must pass committee before they can be debated by the full House. The complaints forced Straus to explain that it's common to refer bills to committee not based on the order they were filed. Stickland's bill still hasn't been assigned to committee, though, and it remains to be seen whether his complaints will speed that decision up.

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