House Rejects School Finance, Tax Bills
AUSTIN - You might call it chaos. Confusion. Fatigue.
Certainly you can call it a stalled special legislative session after the Texas House voted down its own multibillion-dollar school funding bill and property tax relief measure today.
The moves appeared to spell trouble for the latest 30-day special legislative session called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry to change the Texas school funding system and reduce property taxes. But other bills on those subjects still could be considered.
GOP House Speaker Tom Craddick said the session isn't necessarily doomed, but he did say legislators — who have spent two regular sessions and three special sessions tackling school finance — are tired.
"The members are just basically worn out voting on these different proposals. I don't know where we go from here," Craddick said. "We're open to ideas."
The tax bill was intended to cut school property taxes and replace them with an array of consumer and business taxes. It in large part reflected a proposal Perry made earlier this summer when he initially called legislators back to Austin.
"This was the governor's plan. We worked on it, massaged it as much as we could. To be quite frank, we didn't get there," said Rep. Jim Keffer, a Republican from Eastland who sponsored the tax bill but urged fellow House members to vote against it.
They followed his lead with a bipartisan 124-8 vote.
Perry said he wouldn't give up and would keep pushing lawmakers to find a solution in the remaining 24 days of the special session.
"I know they're frustrated. I know they're tired. So are taxpayers," Perry said. "Although today the House failed, they will live to ride again."
The 79-62 vote against the Republican-backed education spending bill came after the House approved a Democrat's plan to provide an additional $3.8 billion over two years to schools, including money for a teacher pay raise and more bilingual education funding.
That was substantially more money than the Republican measure included. Democrats and some Republicans joined to approve the amendment by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.
His plan also would have given an extra school property tax break to homeowners through a larger homestead exemption.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Kent Grusendorf of Arlington, later led the charge to quickly vote against the bill because it was so dramatically changed from its original form. Grusendorf said the more costly changes would have hurt Texas businesses and that the bill was doomed for failure.
Craddick agreed. Once Hochberg's amendment was added to the bill, it didn't balance financially, he said. But Hochberg disputed that and said his proposal was designed to fit with the amount of money available in Grusendorf's bill.
Craddick described the fast-moving series of events Tuesday as being "kind of like a mushroom-type effect" as both bills were defeated.
Democratic Rep. Rene Oliveira of Brownsville had urged against a swift vote on the tax bill, saying it could potentially wreck the special session if it were voted down.
"I think you're commanding the Titanic right now with that approach," Oliveira told Keffer.
Afterward, passage of a school finance bill in this session began looking less likely.
"The stars are going to have to be aligned for that and right now, they're not aligned," Grusendorf said.
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 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.
Grusendorf said some lawmakers don't want to pass a school funding bill until the court rules.
He said his education spending plan would have pumped $2.4 billion more into schools. That proposal reflected a House-Senate compromise hammered out in the last special session, which ended last week in failure.
Democrats criticized that proposal as doing too little for schools and teachers. They said the proposed new funding mechanism would widen the gap between the extremely wealthy school districts and the rest of the districts in Texas.
Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, president of the Senate, cautioned today against overreacting to the House actions. He said senators were continuing to negotiate on their own education spending bill.