AUSTIN — The Texas House Democratic Caucus on Feb. 21 announced its “Texas Kids First” education-funding package that would include all-day pre-kindergarten, teacher raises and retirement and property tax reform.

“We hope to work with our colleagues to incorporate some of these ideas into their bills,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, caucus chair.

Caucus member Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, a former Austin Independent School District board president, said Texas rates 42nd in the nation in per-student funding. She said Texas public school students are funded $2,300 per year below the national average.

The proposed funding package is embodied in several bills that caucus members have filed or are in the process of filing, and would add some $14.5 billion more in baseline budget estimates. Items to be covered include:

- Teacher pay and benefits increases;

- Incentives for educating low-income students, children speaking little or no English, and special-needs pupils;

- Funding for the hiring of more counselors;

- Using money from the Rainy Day Fund for retired teachers;

- A monthly state contribution of $100 toward teachers' health care premiums; and

- A one-time $500 teacher reimbursement for out-of-pocket school supply purchases.

The caucus also proposes to achieve property tax relief by doubling homeowners’ exemptions from $25,000 to $50,000, an amount they suggest would give most homeowners a break of up to $325.

Defendants settle with state

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Feb. 19 announced that Xerox Corporation and several of its former subsidiaries, including Conduent Inc., agreed to a $235.9 million settlement with the State of Texas.

The settlement resolves a lawsuit brought by Paxton’s office under the Texas Medicaid Fraud Prevention Act and other grounds regarding the processing of prior-authorization requests by dentists to deliver orthodontic services to Medicaid patients. Xerox and its companies, Paxton said, were responsible for reviewing and approving or denying requests by Medicaid providers to deliver orthodontic services between January 2004 and March 2012.

Paxton’s office determined that employees of Xerox, Conduent and related companies rubber-stamped orthodontic prior-authorization requests without assuring the required review of each request by qualified clinical personnel. As a result, expensive, taxpayer-funded orthodontic work was performed on thousands of children who either didn’t meet the Medicaid standard for braces or didn’t require treatment. The Medicaid program does not pay for braces for cosmetic purposes. Under Texas law, only those requests that meet strict Medicaid program requirements are allowable.

Oil & gas boom to continue

Commissioners Ryan Sitton, Christi Craddick and Wayne Christian of the Texas Railroad Commission on Feb. 20 told the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Economic Development that discoveries of massive energy reserves in West Texas would enhance the state’s booming energy industry.

Christian said the reserve found in the Wolfcamp Shale and Bone Spring Formation in West Texas is estimated to contain more than 46 billion barrels of oil and 281 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to support decades of production at current levels.

Craddick told the panel that in 2017, the Legislature set a target for the Railroad Commission to plug 1,900 “orphan” wells in the 2018-2019 biennium. She estimated that the commission would cap more than 3,000 such wells by the end of 2019.

Sitton said the demand for the Railroad Commission to plug non-producing wells is also going to increase as the industry grows, and for that, the agency is requesting $39.1 million in 2020-2021 to support the well-plugging program.

Governor nominates justice

Gov. Abbott on Feb. 21 nominated Houston attorney Justin B. “Brett” Busby to be Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, Place 8, for a term to expire Dec. 31, 2020.

Busby, if confirmed by the Texas Senate, would succeed Justice Philip W. “Phil” Johnson of Amarillo, who retired from office effective Dec. 31, 2018.

Busby served as a justice on the Texas 14th Court of Appeals from 2012 to 2018.

House honors former speaker

Former Texas House Speaker James A. “Jimmy” Turman died Feb. 13. He was 91. His body lay in honor in the hall of the Texas House of Representatives on Feb. 22.

Turman represented Fannin County from 1955 through 1963 and served as speaker during the 57th Texas Legislature in 1961-63.

Abbott extends declaration

Gov. Greg Abbott on Feb. 14 extended the State Disaster Declaration for Texas counties affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Because of catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, a state of disaster continues to exist in some 60 counties.

The declaration, originally issued in August 2017, authorizes the use of all available resources of state government and of political subdivisions that are reasonably necessary to cope with the disaster.