AUSTIN — Retired teachers facing the unwelcome prospect of paying higher monthly health insurance premiums received better-than-expected news last week.

The Teachers Retirement System board of trustees on Sept. 21 voted not to increase premiums because the TRS staff negotiated a better rate and other cost savings with its health insurance provider, while keeping plan and pharmacy benefits the same.

The TRS Care fund balance had been projected to be $410 million in the red at the end of 2021. To address the shortfall, the Texas Legislature in 2017 directed TRS to increase premiums by $50 per year over the next four years. 

But TRS’s successful negotiations improved the projected fund balance to minus $238 million, an amount the Legislature can include in the appropriations process during its 2019 session, which begins in January. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he is “confident that the Senate will support additional funding for TRS Care” and “hopeful the next speaker of the House will follow our lead on this.”

AG’s office cautions AISD

The Texas Attorney General’s office on Sept. 21 cautioned Austin Independent School District "against changing its facilities use policy to ban churches with traditional Christian beliefs from renting its facilities after school and on weekends."

A letter from the attorney general’s office warned the school district that the proposed actions are not neutral toward religion and violate the First Amendment and Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“We caution you to reconsider these changes and be respectful of the religious liberty protections afforded churches under the Constitution and Texas law,” stated the letter addressed to AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz and signed by First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer. 

In an Aug. 25 AISD web post, Cruz said, “The use of district properties by outside organizations does not create an endorsement of, or an association of that organization with the district. In addition, funds collected from the Performing Arts Center rental will be dedicated to our district-wide efforts to ensure we support an inclusive, welcoming environment for all students and staff including our LGBTQ students and staff,” Cruz added.

Current Austin ISD policy expressly permits churches to rent school facilities on the same terms as all community organizations. 

The AG's office said members of the district's board of trustees are on record saying they’re against renting AISD's performing arts center to an area church because of its stance that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Opponents meet in debate

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on Sept. 21 met U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the first of three scheduled debates in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 midterm election.

O’Rourke, D-El Paso, is seeking to unseat Cruz, R-Texas, who is running for a second six-year term. The two faced off in a televised, 60-minute debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas co-moderated by Gromer Jeffers of The Dallas Morning News and Julie Fine of the NBC-TV Dallas affiliate. 

Cruz challenged O’Rourke on his personal life and attempted to characterize the Democrat as tax-friendly and pro-regulation. O’Rourke brought up Cruz’s record of missing Senate floor votes while campaigning for the presidency in other states and not welcoming well-intentioned immigrants with a path to citizenship.

The two candidates have agreed to debate again on Sept. 30 in Houston and on Oct. 16 in San Antonio.

Flores wins runoff election

Republican Peter P. “Pete” Flores of Pleasanton won a Sept. 18 special runoff election for the Texas Senate District 19 seat.

The resignation of state Sen. Carlos Uresti after he was convicted of felony charges in June created the vacant Senate seat. In July, eight candidates vied in a special election to fill the post. Since no candidate received 50 percent of the vote, a runoff resulted between the top two in the field of eight: Flores and Democrat Pete Gallego of Alpine.

Returns posted by the Texas Secretary of State’s Elections Division showed Flores received 23,576 votes, or 57 percent of the total number of votes cast in the runoff election, while Gallego received 20,911 votes, or 43 percent.

Flores retired as a game warden for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department at the rank of colonel in 2012. Gallego, an attorney, served 11 consecutive terms as the representative for state House District 74, from 1991 to 2012, and one term as a U.S. representative for Texas Congressional District 23, serving from 2013 to 2015.

Sprawling SD-19 consists of Brewster, Crockett, Dimmit, Edwards, Frio, Kinney, Maverick, Medina, Pecos, Real, Reeves, Terrell, Uvalde, Val Verde and Zavala counties and parts of Atascosa and Bexar counties. An estimated 840,000 people reside in the district, an estimated 478,000 of whom are registered voters.