Tuesday, July 26, 2005

School Finance Bill Abruptly Yanked Back

GOP leaders trying to satisfy holdouts; any shifting riles Democrat

09:28 PM CDT on Monday, July 25, 2005

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Senate leaders abruptly pulled back a school finance and education reform bill Monday after a large bloc of senators indicated that it was opposed to bringing the measure up for debate in the chamber.

The legislation was expected to be passed and sent to the House on Monday before several senators said they wanted the bill rewritten before they would support it. Under Senate rules, a measure must secure a two-thirds vote of the chamber to be brought up for consideration.

Trying to shore up support for the bill, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, met with senators in a closed-door caucus Monday afternoon to solicit opinions on potential changes.

"There's a lot of misinformation about the school finance bill," Mr. Dewhurst said, referring to strong opposition to the proposal from most school districts and education groups in the state. "We'll work on the bill to see how close we can get."

Ms. Shapiro said the bill will be altered to reflect the wishes of a majority of senators and to include as much language as possible from the compromise proposal that was hammered out by House and Senate negotiators in the closing days of the last special session.

"We will talk about differences, and I will make changes," Ms. Shapiro told senators on Monday. "We'll work on a proposal that the Senate is comfortable sending out of here."

But Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said any movement toward the House-Senate agreement – which included several concessions by the Senate – would be "compromising down."

"That is not going to help my districts," he said, citing universal opposition from school superintendents in his Senate district. "Anything less than what we need for facilities, equity and teacher pay raises, I will have to be a no vote."

Senate leaders said they hope to bring the revised measure to the full chamber on Wednesday or Thursday.

House members are scheduled to take up their school finance bill and a companion tax swap measure – trading billions of dollars in school property tax cuts for higher state taxes on consumers, smokers and some businesses – on Tuesday.

"We've just started re-polling. I think we'll have 77-78, if they're all here," House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said Monday when asked about support for the school finance bill in his chamber.

On the tax bill, he said, "We're pretty close on it. This is kind of where we were when we left off" in the last special session.

The bill includes a three-quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax – to 7 percent – and expansion of the tax to auto repairs, Internet access and computer repairs. The measure also would boost the state cigarette tax $1 a pack and close loopholes in the business franchise tax.

Among the areas of concern to senators in the school finance bill, Ms. Shapiro said, are teacher pay raises, a later starting date for the school year, a change in local school board elections, new state mandates for school districts and limits on "Robin Hood" property tax revenue sharing by wealthy school districts.

Staff writer Christy Hoppe contributed to this report.

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