Tuesday, July 26, 2005

School Spending Plan Dies in House

79th LEGISLATURE: SPECIAL SESSION II--This second special session is already not promising. There's a basic tension between business interests and those wanting increased and equitable support for public schools. We'll see what the next few days hold. -Angela

Members say school finance could be doomed.
By Mark Lisheron
Tuesday, July 26, 2005

No sooner had the House surprised its membership by adding a passel of amendments members hadn't even seen to House Bill 2, the state's school finance legislation, than the House sent the entire measure down to defeat 79-62 this afternoon.

And no matter how insistent House Ways and Means Chairman Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, was about immediately plunging ahead with House Bill 3, the companion tax measure, fellow representatives believed that Keffer was at the helm of the Titanic and that school finance reform might soon die again.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, asked Keffer repeatedly whether the vote that blew up House Bill 2 was a tool to end the session. Repeatedly, Keffer insisted that he was there to lay out, discuss and pass the measure.

House Bill 2 proposed spending more money on schools, granting teacher pay raises and reducing the amount of money distributed from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts. But school officials and teachers said it didn't do enough for education, and many lawmakers said it didn't do enough for their districts.

After the vote, representatives huddled in small clusters, buzzing so loudly about what had happened so quickly, they were several times admonished to quiet themselves so Keffer could be heard.

Several members asked Speaker Tom Craddick whether they could propose an amendment that would postpone any further discussion of school finance and tax reform for up to a week to allow the Senate to bring forward versions of the education spending legislation the House could consider. The proposals were not allowed.

Before the House vote, the Senate recessed until noon Thursday to allow the House to bring its school and tax measures forward. At the time, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he was confident the House would provide the Senate with the framework for legislation the Senate had enough votes to pass.

Dewhurst was not troubled by an omen of things to come: Just before the Senate convened, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, was able to push through an amendment to the House school finance plan that, in short, reduced tax relief to put more money into state schools.

The vote, 76-67, featured some of the usual party alignment, but Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, bucked Republican leadership and voted for the Democratic-sponsored changes.

Pitts said that Hochberg's amendment had problems but that at least it allowed for debate on a school finance measure that his constituents despised.

"I have had over 1,000 e-mails and calls telling me not to vote for this bill," Pitts said during a recess after the vote. "They didn't like what I call the Highland Park provisions (that could allow property-wealthy districts to keep more money), the school starting date and the elections in November. People in my district wanted me to vote for their children."

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