Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Special Session Sputters Along

Tue, Jul. 26, 2005

by John Moritz and R.A. Dyer
Star-Telegram Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - The theme song for lawmakers' latest attempt to overhaul the state's school finance system might be "One Step Up/Two Steps Back."

Texas Senate leaders on Monday postponed a debate on one major component of the school finance revamping, saying they were not sure they had the votes to pass it. Late last week, they said they were poised to pass it.

And in the Texas House, a floor debate is scheduled for today on the other major component, a rewrite of how the state raises money for schools. But the leader of the lower chamber said it remained unclear whether the votes were in hand to pass it.

"We started re-polling there -- we're redoing all that," said House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Soon after the previous special legislative session, which Gov. Rick Perry called a month ago, finished last week without an agreement, Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said they were "real close" to completing their work on the complex legislation.

But they had said the same thing time and time again during the special session, and during the regular session that ended May 30.

One component of the overhaul would revamp the state's tax system; the other dictates how schools spend that money. The House is expected to take up both bills today; the Senate is expected to consider legislation related to education spending.

Dewhurst and the Senate sponsor of the legislation, Plano Republican Florence Shapiro, offered an optimistic assessment of the bill's progress. But a number of senators expressed concern that the folks back home had little or no enthusiasm for the work being done in Austin.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said local school officials in his South Texas district told him over the weekend to vote no on the most recent House-Senate compromise.

"Anything less than what we need for facilities, for equity for teachers' pay raises, I will have to be a no vote on," Lucio said.

But even as progress on school finance seemed to sputter, lawmakers were able to turn their attention to other unrelated business on Monday.

For the first time since the legislation came to the floor in the spring, the House took a recorded vote on a bill that raises lawmakers' own retirement benefits while increasing salaries for state judges. The House has voted on the legislation several times but always on a nonrecorded voice vote.

The bill passed 105-26 on Monday. Eighteen members either declined to vote -- including Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth -- or were absent.

Craddick, R-Midland, said that several members requested the recorded vote. The fact that it also boosts lawmakers' own pensions -- just as it increases pay for state district judges, appellate judges and those on the Supreme Court -- was "not a big factor," he said.

"I never heard members talking about it," said Craddick.

Area lawmakers voting for the legislation, House Bill 11, included Reps. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Toby Goodman, R-Arlington; Bob Griggs, R-North Richland Hills; Kent Gru-sendorf, R-Arlington; Phil King, R-Weatherford; Rob Orr, R-Burleson; Todd Smith, R-Euless, and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.

Those opposed included two Fort Worth Democrats, Lon Burnam and Marc Veasey, as well as Vicki Truitt, R-Keller.

The House also adopted House Bill 6, which makes available $2.75 billion in bonds for university construction projects. It will also provide project funding for shortages in critical fields such as nursing, teacher education, engineering and computer science, according to information from the speaker's office.
John Moritz, (512) 476-4294 R.A. Dyer, (512) 476-4294

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