Today's Fair Shots - July 27th, 2017
1-Let's Hope for Strike Three on Health Care Reform in U.S. Senate
2-Payroll Deduction Bill Moves Out of Senate, But Takes on Significant Damage
3-Texas AFT Helps Deliver Dose of Reality to Teacher Pay Bill
4-ULLCO Opposes Chunk of Special Session Agenda
5-Trump White House Messing With Overtime Rule; Most Salaried Workers Still Obligated to Work 'Overtime' for Free
1) The first two votes following the U.S. Senate's narrowest of decisions to take up the decimation of health care in our nation have gone well for the American people.
The Senate roundly rejected a plan by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R -Texas, that would have knocked more than 20 million Americans out of health coverage. Today, the Senate rejected a plan to simply repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement, costing coverage for more than 30 million people. The biggest push may be for a "skinny repeal" bill that would still be devastating to millions of Americans.
The New York Times editorial page described the lay of the land:
There are three main proposals before the Senate. On Tuesday night the Senate failed to muster enough votes to advance one of those: the Better Care Reconciliation Act. That bill would have gutted Medicaid and slashed insurance subsidies, taking coverage away from about 22 million people, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Another, the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act, would eliminate important parts of the law without a replacement, stripping 32 million Americans of health insurance. The third option is called "skinny repeal" because it would leave much of the A.C.A. in place but eliminate one of the law's taxes and the mandates that individuals buy insurance and that employers offer it to their workers. That plan could increase the uninsured population by up to 15 million. It would also cause insurance companies to raise premiums by 20 percent.
The details are complicated, but most Americans understand that these proposals would be incredibly cruel and needlessly devastating, which is why polls have shown that few people support the partisan repeal effort. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found just 28 percent supported the Senate bill to repeal and replace the A.C.A., while 71 percent wanted Republicans and Democrats to work together to improve the law.
Republicans seem oblivious to those concerns, and to the danger that voters who lose access to health care could retaliate at the ballot box in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Some lawmakers may have decided that voters will in fact reward them for living up to their promises to repeal Obamacare, and that because actual repeal would be delayed two or more years, they will pay no price. Still others may have voted yes because they were afraid of losing primary elections to challengers further to the right than them.
Whatever their reasons, Republican senators sent a troubling message to insurers, doctors and hospitals. Many insurers must soon finalize rates and policies for next year, and experts say some might decide not to participate because they think the A.C.A. insurance marketplaces will go away, or jack up premiums due to the political uncertainty.
Obamacare is not collapsing, as President Trump and Republicans claim. But they're doing their best to make that happen, even as they scramble to kill it altogether.
Do Something!: Call 1-888-865-8089 and tell Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz to vote "NO" on all sizes of the "repeal and replace" concept. They have voted for the worst bills so far, but that doesn't justify giving up.
2) The Texas Senate has again approved paycheck deception legislation that would end freedom of public employees to voluntarily support the labor organizations of their choice through payroll dues deduction.
Debate on SB 7 was part of an epic 16-hour session on Tuesday that also saw Senate approval of a range of important but wrong-headed legislation, including the "bathroom bill," a property tax bill that would handcuff cities and counties, and artificial limits on state appropriations.
The vote on the payroll dues bill was 19-12. We can now say for sure that opposition in the Senate is bipartisan, with all 11 Democrats and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, voting against the measure. Nichols's decision to go against the grain in the context of this special session was an important and unusual development that should give pause to the Texas House as the bill continues in the legislative process. We thank all the senators who voted "no."
Democrats in the Senate bashed SB 7 by asking pointed questions of the author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, offering amendments to limit the bill's scope, or speaking against the bill. None of the amendments made it into the bill, but they all sent messages.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, pointed up that teachers, correctional officers and highway workers face dangers every day, not just the first responders who are exempted from the bill.
(Oh, and by the way, a video showing the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation calling for an end to payroll dues deduction for police and firefighters prompted Hughes to distance himself and even proclaim that Gov. Greg Abbott, a major backer of SB 7, has promised to veto the bill if it includes police or firefighters. Police and firefighters unions remain adamantly opposed to SB 7, in solidarity with state and local employees in the bill's sights.)
Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, took note that child abuse investigators work irregular hours and often must visit homes on Christmas, New Year's Day and other holidays to protect the youngest and most vulnerable Texans. But, Uresti suggested, that level of commitment doesn't seem to merit the commonplace freedom to steer one's own money to the organizations of their choice. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, got Hughes to concede that teachers in Texas are just as "special" as firefighters and police in their contributions to the betterment of our state, yet somehow the bill picks and chooses who keeps a benefit that has caused no problem.
Hughes tried a line of reasoning that payroll dues deduction was enacted for different public employees at different times, and that makes it okay to differentiate, because Texas has accepted different access to the benefit in the past. For the record, the Texas AFL-CIO long supported payroll dues deduction for all public employees. The current laws got into the books only one step at a time not because of supporters, but because of opponents.
Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, pointed up that public employees are not forced to join a labor group, not forced to sign up for payroll dues deduction and may cancel either of those voluntary decisions at any time. Menéndez also said charities that will still benefit from payroll deduction under SB 7 often have advocacy arms that lobby lawmakers and do politics; if serving as a conduit for labor group dues is "government involvement," why wouldn't advocacy by charities also trigger "government involvement"? Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said certain charities known for pointed advocacy at the Capitol in their 501(c)(4) capacities are recipients of contributions through payroll deduction.
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said payroll deduction is just a "ministerial act," not government endorsement of an organization, as suggested by supporters of the bill. Garcia added that some public employees live on the financial edge and have no bank account or credit card; payroll dues deduction may be the only practical way for them to freely have a voice. Moreover, Garcia said, the City of Houston reports it would COST money to eliminate payroll dues deduction for public employees, a mandate that would be unfunded.
Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said teacher dues payments fund professional development, retention programs and other programs that benefit the state at large. SB 7 threatens to undermine those programs. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, focused on correctional officers, some of whom have died in the line of duty yet are targets of the bill even though they have been classified for pension purposes right alongside Department of Public Safety officers who are exempt from the bill.
Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, criticized the bill for taking discretion away from local governments that have no problem whatsoever with payroll dues deduction. SB 7 "takes local will out of the process," Lucio said. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she believes the bill's designers intend to reduce the membership in labor organizations by making payment of dues more difficult for state and local employees.
It is now time to turn our attention to the Texas House, where the bill appears headed to join its identical companion, HB 156, in the House State Affairs Committee. More to come.
3) The Texas Senate approved SB 19 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, which started as an unfunded teacher pay raise bill.
In large part because our Brothers and Sisters at Texas AFT and other teacher groups called out the bill for failing to provide funding, Nelson eliminated the pay raise section and left in two items that would be funded by borrowing against the next budget. (Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had blasted the House for proposing a similar funding mechanism in a school finance bill during the regular session, but good ideas can go from pariahs to heroes in weeks at the Texas Legislature.)
Now, the bill includes a one-time election-year bonus of $600 for teachers with six to 10 years of service and $1,000 for more experienced teachers. The bonus would be paid in September 2018, around two months before the next gubernatorial election. SB 19 also would fund a reduction of deductibles for retired teachers in the Teacher Retirement System healthcare program. Nelson said she intends to find permanent funding for that relief.
Nelson and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, speaking from the podium, heavily emphasized a promise to achieve a teacher pay raise no later than the next legislative session. Democrats stood up to question the suddenness of that priority, which was launched into the special session by Gov. Greg Abbott. The Democrats said the two-year budget approved by the Legislature in May delivered nothing in the way of a pay raise, replicating other budgets from recent years. And lest anyone take the newfound top mission to boost teachers' livelihoods too seriously, remember that the freedom of teachers to support the labor organizations of their choice is a prime target of the paycheck deception bill described in item 1.
Texas AFT reports the House is developing a better plan. In fact, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, today filed HB 30, a supplemental appropriations bill aimed at funding school finance reform with available funds.
From the Texas AFT blog:
Certainly Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been able to whip most of his and the governor's favored bills through the Senate over which he rules with a heavy hand. After a marathon Senate session Tuesday, all but a few of their bills had cleared the Senate floor. Bills en route to the House included a voucher bill (SB 2), a bill to discriminate against transgender schoolchildren (SB 3), and the attack on payroll deduction (SB 7) that Patrick has been trying in vain to pass since 2015.
But these bills now face an icy reception in the Texas House, where Patrick's strong-arm tactics don't reach and the governor's attempts at bullying may be backfiring. And the surface story of Patrick's success at getting his bills through the Senate misses important aspects of what's going on at the Capitol this summer.
Two examples illustrate the point. One of the bills passed Tuesdayconcerning teacher pay and TRS health-care benefits for retirees was significantly reshaped for the better by pressure from active and retired teachers and other school employees. That bill, SB 19, initially included a phantom teacher pay raise without a funding source that wouldn't even take effect until three years from now, at best, and had all the earmarks of an unfunded mandate that would come out of local school budgets at the expense of educators and students. But an outcry from school employees forced Patrick to back off on that bad idea, and the final Senate version of the bill contained only measures actually funded by the state, albeit only for the short term: teacher bonuses of $600 to $1,000 due in September 2018 and reductions in health-care cost increases imposed on retirees under the TRS-Care program for plan years 2018 and 2019.
We are still pushing for the House to turn the TRS-Care relief into something permanent rather than temporary and to pass a real, funded pay raise. But the lesson here is that counter-pressure can indeed reshape legislation-especially when legislators hear day in and day out from the folks back home.
While we're talking about TRS-Care and a teacher raise, the news on this front from the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday was very good. HB 24 by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) would give teachers and full-time counselors, librarians, and school nurses a real $1,000 ongoing annual raise, paid for from the Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund), the reserve fund that is bulging at the seams with more than $10 billion. Texas AFT legislative spokesman Eric Hartman testified that "this is what a real teacher pay raise looks like," in pointed contrast to the unfunded Dan Patrick proposal that the Senate abandoned later in the day. Texas AFT's testimony also encouraged the House to look at broader benefit proposals to improve health-care funding for all active school employees-as strongly urged by committee member Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), a leader in the House on school-funding issues.
The Appropriations Committee also gave a warm reception to a batch of proposals endorsed by Texas AFT to give retired school employees a better deal and reduce their sharply rising health-care costs. We backed HB 76 by Darby and HB 20 by Ashby as well as HB 151 by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Terrell), which would spend $1 billion over four years to ease the burden on retirees. All three bills would sensibly draw from the Economic Stabilization Fund, and indeed could be paid for just out of the projected growth in that fund, let alone the $10 billion already in it. Let's put it this way: The discussion of pay and benefits in the House is off to a very good start.
4) Let's do a little catch-up on the United Labor Legislative Committee's endorsements on bills pending in the legislative session. As you might recall, ULLCO has continued its positions from the regular session, so, for example, there was no need to reconsider opposition to SB 7, SB 13 (a bill by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Fort Worth and the identical HB 164 by Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, that dictates how cities would handle permits) and the like.
But some of the new ideas have drawn new opposition. ULLCO:
OPPOSED SJR 1 by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Fort Worth, and SB 97 by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, which purported to steer lottery money to public schools for a teacher pay raise. But because those funds already go to public schools, the bills might have resulted in school districts cutting programs that benefit students. These measures now appear to be a dead letter;
OPPOSED SB 9 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, which would place artificial limits on the growth of state budget appropriations, and SB 18 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, which would place artificial limits on the growth of city appropriations. SB 9 passed the Senate today, but SB 18 was postponed and might be short of a majority;
OPPOSED several bills that would take away local power and discretion over matters that are important to local residents, including SB 14 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Canton, which would eliminate local regulations that protect trees, and SB 15 by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, which would eliminate cell phone ordinances that go beyond the recently passed limited state ban on texting while driving. Those bills cleared the Senate today.
5) The Trump White House is moving to substitute a seriously weakened version of the overtime rule to replace a robust Obama administration rule that was held up by a federal judge.
The Texas AFL-CIO has sought to intervene in the lawsuit that led to that East Texas judge's order. Meanwhile, Reuters reports the Labor Department is looking to reduce the $47,000 threshold that had been set to take effect last Dec. 1 with a much lower threshold and potentially variations across the nation. Reuters said the Labor Department is even considering eliminating the salary threshold altogether, basing overtime eligibility instead on job duties.
This is a raw deal for salaried managers, supervisors and other working people who can be required to work long hours for no additional pay if their salary meets a threshold that hasn't been adjusted remotely close to the rate of inflation:
The U.S. Department of Labor on Tuesday called for public comments on the rule, which is the first step in revoking or revising it.
The rule would have doubled to $47,000 the maximum salary a worker can earn and still be eligible for mandatory overtime pay under federal wage law. A group of 21 states and business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce challenged the rule in a lawsuit filed last year.
The Labor Department appealed the judge's decision temporarily blocking the rule to a New Orleans-based U.S. appeals court weeks before President Donald Trump took office in January.
Earlier this month, the department defended its power to base overtime eligibility on workers' salaries in a brief submitted to the court. But the agency made clear that it did not agree with the threshold set by the Obama administration.
On Tuesday, the department said in light of the pending appeal, it decided to issue a request for comments rather than skip immediately to rescinding or revising the rule.
The agency asked for input on whether the current threshold of $23,660 set in 2004 should be updated for inflation, and whether there should be multiple levels based on region, employer size, industry or other factors.
Workers' rights groups criticized the Trump administration for moving to change the rule, with some noting that the Obama administration reviewed 300,000 comments before setting the salary threshold at $47,000.
"Working people should not have to wait another day for government to be on their side," Christine Owens, executive director of the union-backed National Employment Law Project, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The department also asked employers to explain how they prepared for the rule to take effect and whether it has had an outsize impact on small businesses and particular industries.
The department said it was considering eliminating the salary threshold, leaving overtime eligibility to be based on workers' job duties.
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