Thursday, July 28, 2005

Frustrated Watchers Say House Ought to Pack it Up

Texas Latino Education Coalition to which LULAC belongs will be holding a news conference in Austin tomorrow, Thursday at 10:00 a.m. on the South steps of the Capitol (facing Congress Avenue). For those who are able to stay longer, teams will visit key legislators’ offices.

The visitor paid parking garage is located on San Jacinto and 12 streets. We need as many coalition members and other advocates to be there as possible!

Media Advisory – News Conference

Texas Latino Education Coalition to
Unveil Six Steps to Education Excellence

When: Thursday, July 28 • 10:00 a.m.

Where: South Capitol Steps, Austin
(parking at 12th Street and San Jacinto)

Why: Texas must stand by excellence, fairness and equity for all students. On Thursday, the Texas Latino Education Coalition will present six steps to education excellence.

Who: The Texas Latino Education Coalition is a collaborative of organizations and individuals who advocate the rights of Latinos at the local, state and national levels. Its mission is to improve public education for Latino children, which will impact the quality of education for all children.

Representing thousands of Texans, member organizations include: the Intercultural Development Research Association, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Mexican American School Board Members Association, the League of United Latin American Citizens, among many others.

Media contact: Christie L. Goodman, APR, at IDRA (210-444-1710)

Education community looks to the courts as lawmakers wonder what's next.
By Mark Lisheron, Ben Wear
Thursday, July 28, 2005

Just maybe, local lawmakers said as they tried not to burn themselves on the wreckage of Tuesday's House session, the Legislature wasn't as close to the goal line with school finance and property tax relief as everyone thought.

As Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick met in private Wednesday at the Capitol to salvage something of the second special session, pessimism deepened among House members from both parties. The most hopeful lawmakers questioned the motives of their colleagues after House leaders rushed school funding and tax-swap legislation to their doom Tuesday.

The education community, having witnessed Tuesday's carnage on the House floor, sees little chance that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again, either in this special session or any new session Perry might call.

They'd just as soon see the Legislature quit trying and wait for the Texas Supreme Court to provide direction. The court is expected to rule this fall whether the state's school finance system is constitutional.

"I would love to have something we could support and stand for, but I haven't seen it," said Clayton Downing, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, which represents the 140 or so districts that must share their property taxes with other districts. "And I don't have any hopes to see it."

Most everyone produced a villain. Lack of real leadership, the intransigence of Democrats, pressure from school superintendents, the intransigence of Republicans. The lack of consensus on what went wrong was symptomatic of the uncertainty about how to proceed expressed by House members Wednesday.

"For the first time, colleagues of mine were saying it's time to pack it up, go home and let the courts decide," Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said, still not quite believing what he had seen the day before. "At some point, you have to ask if the governor calling us back is a political advantage. At some point, someone is going to blink. After yesterday, I stopped thinking about whether it's going to be the governor or the Legislature."

State Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, the author of the doomed House Bill 2, mused about the hopes of the education community Tuesday shortly before his bill came up for debate. HB 2 would have increased education spending and reduced redistribution of property taxes, though educators said that it fell short of what's needed and that the new money would have been eaten up by new mandates.

"They're betting on the courts," Grusendorf said. "That's been the dynamic all year long. They really believe the courts are going to give them a pot of gold."

The sequence of events Tuesday also presents questions about Craddick's commitment to school finance, former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff said. It was Craddick who cast the tiebreaking vote to pass the bill in the first special session.

After Tuesday's vote, Craddick lamented that without three or four Republicans in attendance the measure couldn't be protected. A spokeswoman said Wednesday that support for the legislation vanished after it was changed on the House floor.

"In the past, whenever he has really needed them, he's been able to turn the screw and come up with 78 or 80 votes," Ratliff, a longtime Republican senator, said. "The question is, was this a failure of leadership, or maybe he didn't care whether he had the votes or not."

So close and yet so far

With these dissonant political messages being sent to the Republican majority in the House, the big surprise Wednesday was not in how negotiations collapsed, but how the House got as far and as close to working agreements as it did.

When the first special session on school finance ended last week, House and Senate negotiators had reached a deal on school spending and insisted they were close to agreement on raising sales taxes and expanding business taxes to pay for property tax cuts.

An amendment to the school spending proposal presented Tuesday by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, though, demonstrated how far apart factions in the House truly were, Ratliff said.

Hochberg called for an additional $3.8 billion in school spending, to be funded by a reduction in the property tax relief the House had been working toward. It also called for raising residential homestead exemptions.

To the surprise of many in the House, not the least of whom was Hochberg, the amendment passed with bipartisan support. In short order, other amendments were added to the school finance bill, a vote was called for, and a majority in the House killed the bill. With school spending dead, the House overwhelmingly shot down its tax plan, too.

"It's a great study in how all politics is local," Ratliff said. "You had at least a sizable number of Republicans who wanted to go home and tell their people they voted for money for schools, teacher pay and an increase in the homestead exemption. Then when it came time to pay for it, you saw what happened."

In the space of an hour, Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said he went from hopeful to hopeless. On Wednesday, he still could not be sure what the motives were for the votes taken in quick succession the day before. Strama was also not sure if there was any point in pressing on.

"Should we continue to try, the charge will be for the leadership to see if they can govern in a bipartisan fashion over the next couple of weeks," he said.

Better to wait?

Politicians on Wednesday could not even say for sure what effect pressure from the various factions of the education lobby had on the House collapse.

The Texas Association of School Administrators, which represents school superintendents, posted online notices Monday and Tuesday laying out what it saw as the flaws of the spending proposals and calling on members to contact legislators and express opposition to it.

"There ought to be a rule that you never have a special session on school finance in the summer," joked Brad Shields, an education lobbyist for school districts that depend on industrial property taxes. "Because all the teachers and superintendents are off, and they have lot of time to get involved."

Shields said that some legislators in recent days had been concerned about passing politically dangerous school finance and tax-swap legislation and spending most of the available new money on teacher raises. Then, they worried, the Texas Supreme Court might later force them to spend still more money on education, which could require a tax increase.

Better to wait for the court to rule first, the emerging consensus went, Shields said. Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities and author of a key school finance decision in his earlier days as a district judge, said that opposition among educators was grounded in the bill's flaws, not a roll of the dice on the Supreme Court.

"There's a saying among trial lawyers that 'pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered,' " said McCown, whose group advocates for low- and middle-income families. In negotiating a final bill in the first special session and bringing parts of it back in this session, McCown said, the Legislature's Republican leaders overreached and stacked the deck too heavily for wealthy districts. And got slaughtered.

Superintendents across Central Texas voiced frustration Wednesday over legislators' inability to pass a school spending plan.

"It was a bad bill," said Kirk London, superintendent of the 10,000-student Hays Consolidated school district. "There was no credit given for us being a fast-growth district."

School officials said they fear legislators will make a hasty decision without thinking through all the consequences for districts. School officials also said legislators need to leave decisions, including school start dates, curriculum and incentive pay, up to local boards. Mandates in those areas were included in the failed legislation.

"I don't think our Legislature is necessarily all that concerned with education," said Tom Glenn, superintendent of the 20,000-student Leander school district. "I think they're concerned with taxation, and I'm sick of it."

Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, is prepared to prove Glenn wrong. Gattis remains convinced that the nearness to a workable school finance bill was not an illusion. But Gattis is not naive.

"It took us three special sessions to get redistricting done, and that was purely political on both sides," Gattis said. "The schoolchildren of Texas and the taxpayers of Texas are more important than some political process. We had a temper tantrum yesterday. Now it's time to get back to work."

Additional material from staff writer Melissa Taboada

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