Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan pitched redirecting more than $100 million in state funding to quickly boost mental health and school safety programs before school starts again next fall.
His plan came in response to a $50 million request from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, to immediately purchase bulletproof shields for school police departments. Phelan said he also supported that purchase.
"I believe our respective chambers have the obligation to take immediate, concrete action with the goal of making our schools as safe as possible before the start of the upcoming school year," Phelan said in a letter to Patrick on Monday. "Your recommendation to dedicate $50 million toward outfitting local school law enforcement with bulletproof shields is a worthwhile goal to that end, and you have my full support in that endeavor."
The legislative funding requests from the leaders of the Texas House and Senate come as the state is still reeling from the nation’s second deadliest school shooting in history — after an 18-year-old gunman killed 21 people at a Uvalde elementary school last month.
Patrick suggested the funding for bulletproof shields two weeks ago, saying they could have helped police officers more quickly confront the gunman in the Uvalde school shooting.
The Legislature, which sets the state’s two-year budget, is not scheduled to go back into session until January. That means moving funding will require a process called "budget execution," which allows lawmakers to take money that’s already been appropriated and redirect it to another source. Republican state leaders have most recently used the process to send about $1 billion to Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott’s costly border mission that was running out of funds.
Phelan said lawmakers will have the option to use surplus money in the Foundation School Program to cover the costs of the new programs without impacting the finances of any school district in the process. The program is the primary source of funding for all Texas schools and ensures all schools receive roughly the same amount of funding per student.
Phelan’s request includes an estimated:
- $37.5 million in additional yearly funding for the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program, which provides telemedicine services for schools to help identify and assess children with behavioral needs and gives them access to mental health services. The state’s current yearly $25 million funding for the program serves 40% of the state.
- $10.5 million per year to create "pediatric crisis stabilization and response" teams across the state to give children and families access to crisis intervention. The teams can respond immediately to a mental health crisis and create a bridge to ongoing care, which can take pressure off the foster care system and hospital emergency rooms. Phelan wants to create six full teams and six half teams, which would have a startup cost of $3 million.
- $575,000 in yearly funding per team for "multisystemic therapy" teams, which offer intervention aimed at reducing the risk of violence. There are currently seven teams in the state, and 140 teams are required to meet the statewide need. Each team would also require a $100,000 cost for first-year training.
- $950,000 in yearly funding for two additional "coordinated specialty care" teams, including one in the Uvalde area, that treat youth experiencing a first episode of psychosis, which is linked with an increased likelihood of committing suicide if untreated.
- $30 million per year to expand the number of pediatric mental health beds in hospitals across the state.
- $7 million to provide all law enforcement cadets and active law enforcement officers research-based active-shooter training developed by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University.
- $7 million to ensure that the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University can provide all school districts in the state training on active-shooter response and a review of their response plans for these attacks.
- $18.7 million for all of Texas’ public and charter schools to purchase panic alert technology, as legislatures in New Jersey and Florida have done.
Patrick on Monday responded favorably to many of Phelan’s requests, agreeing to add "five to seven" multisystemic therapy teams in the fall of 2022 and two new coordinated specialty care teams (with one in San Antonio available to serve the Uvalde area), as well as providing additional funding for technology systems if needed.
The lieutenant governor added that he would like to set aside funding for fusion centers, which are centers owned and operated by the state that allow for the sharing of information related to potential threats. He also said additional funding is needed for automatic locking doors and metal detectors.
Any requests would have to be approved by Phelan and Patrick, as well as the leaders of the budget-writing committees in each chamber: Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Because the governor has declared a disaster in Uvalde to address the shooting, Phelan’s office said lawmakers would not need a letter from the affected agencies declaring that they would not be negatively impacted by the money transfer. That step is usually needed when lawmakers want to use the budget execution procedure.
"The coming year will bring many debates and policy discussions about how our state approaches the issue of school safety, mental health, police training, firearm safety, and more, and I look forward to working with you in this important mission to make Texas a safer place," Phelan said. "It is my fervent hope that our chambers can come together earnestly to do what is right for the State of Texas and the community of Uvalde, beginning with the initiatives that you and I have now both proposed."
House Democrats have been critical of the Republican state leadership’s response to the Uvalde shooting, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed. They’ve called for "common-sense gun safety measures" and have criticized decisions by GOP leaders last year to loosen gun laws, most notably allowing any Texan to legally carry a handgun without a license or training.
In a statement on Monday, Texas Democratic Party co-executive director Jamarr Brown criticized state Republican leaders for not dealing directly with access to firearms in their proposed solutions and blasted them for offering to increase funding for mental health services after taking $211 million from the agency that oversees mental health programs to fund Gov. Greg Abbott's costly border mission.
"The fact of the matter is that guns are the issue. Yes, we need more mental health support and our schools need to be properly upgraded – but those are distractions from the issue at hand: that an 18-year old was able to legally purchase a weapon of war and use it to slaughter a classroom of children and teachers," Brown said in a statement. "Instead of making meaningful reforms after El Paso and Sutherland Springs, the Governor and his fellow Republicans have increased access to guns in recent years. The truth is that until real gun safety legislation is passed in this state, children and teachers are, tragically, not safe at school – or anywhere else – in Texas."
For more information, head to the Texas Tribune