Wednesday, June 29, 2005

House OKs Plan for School Spending


Proposal creates teacher incentive-pay system, delays start of school year.
By Jason Embry
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The House approved a $2.5 billion education proposal Tuesday night that lowers property taxes and boosts teacher salaries but has been widely criticized by educators.

House leaders, meanwhile, tried to quietly revise a separate plan to swap billions in higher state taxes for lower school property taxes.

The education measure creates an expansive incentive-pay program for teachers, toughens oversight of the state's charter-school system and requires schools to start after Labor Day beginning in 2006. The Senate is expected to debate a similar proposal as soon as today.

The tax swap must pass in order for the education plan to take effect, and the tax plan that House leaders are pushing is competing for lawmakers' attention with a proposal pushed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry's plan does not rework the corporate franchise tax but does make more companies pay it. House leaders have wanted to extend it even further but give businesses the option of paying a payroll tax instead.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said he still wants to include the payroll tax option but said he's weighing changes to his tax plan so that it wins passage in his committee.

The House education plan won approval on a 77-69 vote in a body that has 25 more Republicans than Democrats. Every Central Texas Republican in the House voted for the plan, and every local Democrat opposed it.

Earlier in the day, the House defeated by one vote a Democrat-backed plan that would have spent more money on schools and given smaller overall cuts in property taxes.

The Republican-backed proposal would reduce the cap on property taxes for school maintenance and operations by 26 percent within two years, saving $340 a year for the owner of a home appraised at $100,000. Districts with high property values per student still would have to share money with districts that have less property wealth as part of the school finance system, but fewer property-wealthy districts would have to do so.

The plan, authored by Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, calls for each school district to see at least a 3 percent increase in state and local dollars.

Education groups have said inflation and new mandates will quickly eat up that money and not leave enough to help all students meet the state's growing academic demands.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said a group of school superintendents told him Monday that they'd rather see the Legislature keep the current system in place than pass Grusendorf's plan.

"I am hard-pressed to ignore the opinions of people we have chosen to preside over our local school districts," he said.

The Democrats' plan would have spent more money on bilingual education and programs for students at risk of failing or dropping out. Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat who sponsored his party's plan, said three out of four school districts would have received more money per student under the Democratic proposal than under the GOP measure.

But critics said the Democrats' proposal would have required a tax increase.

"It will trap you into voting for a tax in the next few years that you will not be very proud of," said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa.

While Republicans want to raise state taxes to replace the reduced property taxes dollar-for-dollar, the Democratic plan called for some of the money raised from higher state taxes to go to schools. Still, they said their plan, because it would triple the amount of a home's value that is exempt from school taxes, would give a larger tax cut to the owner of an average-value home in 144 of 150 House districts.

The Republican plan "gives more of its tax relief to people in the most expensive homes and delivers far more money per student to districts that already start out with an advantage," Hochberg said.

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