With Interim Charges, TX Lege Leaders Put Kids’ Issues on the Agenda

We’re glad to see that leaders at the Texas Legislature have signaled that several important children’s issues will be on the agenda during the 2023 legislative session.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan recently formed new temporary committees and announced the “interim charge” issues that all House committees will study and hold hearings on in preparation for the next legislative session. On the Senate side, 

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick just announced the interim charges for Senate committees. A number of key issues for kids and families are front and center in their  announcements.

Let’s start with health care, which Speaker Phelan is clearly looking to prioritize again this session.

Last year, he helped push through important health care bills in collaboration with Rep. Toni Rose, Rep. Philip Cortez, Rep. James Frank, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and others. To guide efforts for the next session, he announced a new Select Committee on Health Care Reform. The Select Committee is tasked with looking into several important issues, including improving access to comprehensive health care; strengthening outreach to families with children who are eligible for but unenrolled in Medicaid or CHIP; and understanding and addressing the consequences of delays in obtaining well-child care, prenatal care, mental health care, and other support. 

Health care will be part of the discussion in other House committees as well. The Speaker tasked the Human Services Committee with examining implementation of the Healthy Families, Healthy Texas package he proposed last session. He singled out two bills in particular for the Committee to monitor: HB 133, the maternal health coverage bill, and the children’s health coverage provisions from HB 290 that passed as an amendment to HB 2658. (HB 133, intended to extend postpartum health coverage from 2 months to 6 months, has not been implemented yet since federal policy is designed for states to extend that coverage to a full 12 months, as originally passed in the Texas House and recommended by the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee. The state plans to request a Medicaid waiver to implement the 6-month postpartum extension.) The Committee will also take a look at uncompensated care and other 1115 Waiver subjects. In the Public Health Committee, the agenda for this interim will include telehealth and access to health care in rural communities, among other issues. The Appropriations Committee will consider the state’s IT system for managing Medicaid.

Over in the Senate, the Finance Committee will also examine Medicaid funding for hospitals and other 1115 Waiver issues. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will take up public health data and health care workforce shortages, among other topics.

While not named explicitly in the House or Senate interim charges, it is likely that these health care discussions across multiple committees will also address the state’s process of resuming Medicaid disenrollments after the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency rules come to an end this year. Advocates have urged state officials to avoid a spike in eligible children losing their insurance and to ensure children and moms who are no longer eligible for Medicaid can transition smoothly to CHIP, Healthy Texas Women, or the ACA Marketplace.

To no one’s surprise, legislative leaders have named child protection and foster care as top issues in both the House and Senate.

On the Senate side, Lt. Governor Patrick recently formed the Special Committee on Child Protective Services after concerning reports about The Refuge foster care facility in Bastrop.

Additionally, he has called on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee to address foster care. Specifically, he directed the Committee to:

Evaluate state investments in the child welfare system. Examine reasons for delayed implementation of past legislative reforms and any deficient agency performance metrics. Identify ways to continue to improve the child welfare system in Texas and consider other state models to ensure the health and well-being for children in state care.

On the House side, the Speaker directed the Human Services Committee to study a number of child protection issues, including implementation of the Family Preservation Services Pilot Program; prevention and intervention; ensuring there are appropriate placements for children in foster care; strengthening family preservation; and more. The Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, will review the state’s efforts to improve foster care capacity.

We expect many of these conversations will be shaped by the recent recommendations from the Expert Panel in the federal lawsuit on the state’s foster care system. The recommendations provide an opportunity to pursue the critical goals of 1) keeping more kids safely with their families and out of foster care, and 2) ensuring that kids who do enter foster care are safe, supported, and — if at all possible — living with a family. Our recent memo to state leaders on the Expert Panel recommendations suggests next steps for the state officials to take both now and next session.

A new House committee — plus interim charges in multiple House and Senate committees — suggest the current children’s mental health crisis will be on the Legislature’s agenda

In the fall, Speaker Phelan announced a new House Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety to focus on children’s mental health — a challenge that has gone from bad to worse during the pandemic — and other difficulties facing Texas kids and youth. 

Elsewhere in the House, the Public Education Committee will explore the ways the pandemic has harmed children’s mental health and study options for improving support, and the Appropriations Committee will examine the use of federal COVID-19 relief funds to support student mental health.

Children’s mental health will also be on the agenda for Senate committees. Lt. Governor Patrick directed the Senate Finance Committee to “Examine the state mental health service delivery system.” He also instructed the Senate Education Committee to look into mental health as part of its interim charge on student discipline.

As other House and Senate committees focus on ways to keep children safely out of the foster care system, lawmakers will likely consider ways to strengthen community mental health services for children. Although only five to seven percent of children enter foster care because of unaddressed mental health challenges, 35 percent of children without placement entered foster care because they could not access needed mental health services.

Child care issues will be front and center again for the House Committee on International Relations and Economic Development.

Last session, a bipartisan group of legislators led by Chair Angie Chen Button, Rep. James Talarico, and others passed a major package of child care legislation. Speaker Phelan has directed the Committee to dig into the implementation of those bills.

The state’s already precarious child care situation has grown more dire during the pandemic for children, parents, employers, and child care providers, so we would expect a broader discussion of these challenges and potential solutions.

For example, child care is likely to come up when the House Business and Industry Committee takes up its interim charge on unemployment trends and hurdles to workforce  reentry.

The current teacher shortages — which have exacerbated the longstanding shortage of bilingual educators — will be in the spotlight in several venues this interim. 

In the Senate, the Education Committee will address the “COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Educator Talent Pipeline,” and the Higher Education Committee will consider “Teaching and Health Care Workforce Participation.” In the House, the Public Education Committee will also look into the challenge of filling staff vacancies at Texas schools.

Those legislative efforts will run parallel to the TEA-run task force recently announced by Governor Abbott will examine the difficulty that school districts are facing as they attempt to provide enough teachers to effectively staff classrooms and educate children for the remainder of this school year and upcoming years.

These efforts, inside and outside the Legislature, provide an opportunity to address the particular shortage of bilingual educators, which the Texas Tribune recently highlighted.  

The shortage of bilingual teachers is also one of the subjects the Legislature directed TEA and other state agencies to work on this year as they develop a State Strategic Plan for Bilingual Education this interim in response to SB 560. 

Beyond the teacher shortage, House and Senate Committees will address other education issues. For example, in the House, the Appropriations Committee and the Public Education Committee will look at efforts to address learning loss during the pandemic, while in the Senate the Finance Committee will explore how school districts have used federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Stay tuned for upcoming hearings.

Keep an eye out for upcoming hearings on these issues and other opportunities to weigh in with policymakers about these interim charges.