Wednesday, July 27, 2005

School Finance Bills Unravel in the House

School finance in this third legislative session is yet again on a very rocky road. At least the Hochberg amendment, despite Grusendorf's (the Committee Chair on Public Education in the House) objections shows promise. Check out this good quick read from the Burnt Orange Report . Also see yesterday's BO Report for more discussion on the Hochberg Amendment. -Angela

Measures backed by Republican leaders dealt bipartisan blow

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

By TERRENCE STUTZ and CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – House members slapped down Gov. Rick Perry and Republican leaders Tuesday, rejecting twin school finance bills and pushing the current special session to the brink of collapse.

In a chaotic day of debate and political maneuvering in the chamber, House members slammed the door on their leader's plans to solve the state's education funding crisis and provide property tax relief to millions of businesses and homeowners.

After the tax bill – which traded billions of dollars in school property tax cuts for higher state taxes on consumers, smokers and some businesses – was turned down by a lopsided vote of 124 to 8, GOP House leaders were left wondering what else could be done to salvage the special session, which began less than a week ago.

"We just didn't have the votes. We couldn't get 'em," said a disappointed House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. "The members are worn out, and they've taken this vote multiple times. They're kind of fatigued voting on the same issues."

The current special session is the second in a row for lawmakers who failed to agree on school finance legislation in their regular session this year and in a subsequent special session that ended last week.

Asked whether lawmakers should just adjourn and go home, Mr. Craddick said, "That's not my decision." For now, he said, House members will continue to work on school finance and will consider other legislation on Thursday.

Mr. Perry said he was disappointed by the vote but noted that the special session lasts another 24 days. "I still believe where there is a will, there's a way. ... The Legislature cannot pass this great challenge to another day."

GOP leaders had hoped to lead the way Tuesday by passing the school finance bill and then following up with a tax swap measure.

But Mr. Craddick and his lieutenants suffered a rare defeat on the House floor when the chamber's 62 Democrats were joined by 14 Republicans in amending the Republican plan by providing more tax relief for homeowners, bigger pay raises for teachers and nearly twice as much new money for school districts.

Faced with legislation that suddenly included a tax shift to businesses and far more additional funding for schools than they felt was prudent, sponsors of the bill pulled the plug, first by accepting dozens of amendments that were never explained and then calling for a quick vote on the measure, which was rejected on a 79-62 vote. Most Republicans voted no.

Ironically, most Democrats – who were initially opposed to the legislation – supported the bill in the final vote.

"One more round in a never-ending saga," said a disappointed Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, after his bill went down to defeat. In the end, even he voted against it because of the changes made on the House floor.

'I don't think it's over'

Afterward, Mr. Grusendorf refused to sound the death knell for school finance. "You can only push it up that hill so many times, but I don't think it's over," he said.

The Senate is still working on its own version of the legislation, but the proposal has run into some opposition in the upper chamber. If the Senate passes a bill, it would then go to the House for consideration.

Mr. Grusendorf laid partial blame for defeat of the bill on school districts and education groups, who were almost universally opposed to the original measure because of what they complained was inadequate funding.

"I wish they had been for something instead of against everything," Mr. Grusendorf said.

After dumping the school finance bill – which also included several proposed reforms such as merit pay for teachers and a new mandatory starting date for the school year – House members took up the tax swap measure.

But after defeat of the school finance proposal, most members were predicting a similar demise for the tax bill, with its combination of higher sales and cigarette taxes, and closing of loopholes in the state's business franchise tax.

After considering a handful of amendments, sponsors called for a vote without the usual pleas for support to pass the legislation. The electronic voting board in the House immediately flashed a sea of red lights, signifying no votes from most members.

"We have to start over," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, after the vote.

Democratic leaders, who have vigorously opposed most of the Republican proposals for school finance and taxes, saw signs that the session was on its last legs.

"They appear to be wanting to throw in the towel," said Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Clock is ticking

The state is under a court order to revamp the $33 billion-a-year funding system by Oct. 1 or see funding for all schools cut off until the job is done. That order by state District Judge John Dietz has been appealed by state officials to the Texas Supreme Court. The high court has held a hearing in the case, but is not expected to rule until late August or September.

Republican leaders initially tried to clear the way for quick approval of the school finance bill Tuesday by offering a motion – which failed – to cut off debate and all amendments shortly after sponsors laid out the legislation.

Opponents – mostly Democrats – vigorously objected to pushing such major legislation through the chamber without more careful examination.

'This is a mockery'

"This is a mockery," said Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso. "What is being done by the speaker is totally a sham, a disgrace to the House."

Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, said, "If we don't have time to debate this school bill, we should not be here."

The Democratic minority and a group of Republicans offered changes opposed by Mr. Grusendorf and other bill supporters.

The amendment by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, called for nearly doubling the amount of new money for schools – $3.8 billion over the next two years – and increasing raises for teachers by nearly $1,000 over the next two years to $2,500.

And it boosted the homestead exemption for school property taxes from the current $15,000 to $32,500, guaranteeing a significant savings for homeowners. Mr. Grusendorf argued against it, but the House approved the proposal on a 76 to 67 vote. Fourteen Republicans joined the Democrats to adopt the amendment.

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