Bill also raises pay for judges as some lawmakers argue that school finance is priority
By POLLY ROSS HUGHES
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - With a swift vote and no debate, state representatives approved a boost in their own retirement benefits Monday as they gave judges a pay raise.
House Bill 11 by Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, won final passage, 105-26, amid criticism that House lawmakers have watched out for their own financial interests before those of schools and teachers.
The bill now goes to the Senate State Affairs Committee, where it is likely to win committee approval. Even so, it could face trouble getting to a floor debate. The House, after rancorous debate and major changes, voted down a multibillion-dollar school funding bill today.
Texas is under court pressure to change its $33 billion school funding system, known to some as Robin Hood because it takes money from wealthy districts and shares it with poorer ones.
A state district judge last year declared the Texas system inadequate and unconstitutional. The state appealed that decision to the Texas Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in the coming weeks and months.
This is the fifth session, counting regular and special sessions, in which the Legislature as tried to tackle school finance.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst vowed to block all other legislation until there is a final agreement on school finance reforms and a tax bill to fund it.
"I want to take up telecom and judicial pay, but not right now," Dewhurst said. "We want to go ahead and get Senate Bill 2, which is education reform, passed out of the Senate. We want to see the tax bill come over from the House and vote on that, and then I'll consider taking up those bills."
Judicial pay under the House bill would increase from:
•$101,000 to $125,000 for state district judges.
•$107,000 to $137,500 for Court of Appeals judges.
•$113,000 to $150,000 for Texas Supreme Court justices.
The pay increases are funded by a $4 fee increase for each criminal case and a $37 increase for each civil lawsuit.
A judge representing both district and appellate judges said they have received no pay increases in the past seven years.
"We're getting to the point where we are losing so many judges because salaries were not even keeping up with inflation," said Chief Justice Linda Thomas of the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas.
Lawmakers' pensions have been tied to judicial salaries since 1975 and legislators prefer that linkage, said Hartnett.
"It's been hard enough getting the bill passed with the link (between judges' pay and lawmakers' pensions) in place. Trying to de-link it would have made this harder to pass," he said.
The bill would raise lawmakers' pensions by 22 percent, Hartnett said, the first increase in seven years.
Currently, Texas' part-time lawmakers are paid $7,200 a year, although retired lawmakers can begin collecting pensions at age 50 if they have served at least 12 years. Benefits increase with each year of service. Under the bill, a retired official with a dozen years' experience would get a pension hike of $6,431 annually, bringing the total pension to $34,500.
A few senior lawmakers, including Speaker Tom Craddick, eventually would collect annual pensions of $100,000 or more if the bill passes.
Four Houston representatives voted against the bill: Republicans Gary Elkins and Debbie Riddle and Democrats Scott Hochberg and Senfronia Thompson.
While Thompson thinks judges need a raise, "she thinks teachers deserve a pay raise before judges get one," said Patrick Johnson, her legislative counsel. "It's sending the wrong message."
Hartnett said others also voting against the bill agreed teachers need a raise before judges.
"Then there are some who feel it was politically wise to vote against the bill who are privately delighted that it passed," he said.