Aug. 2, 2005, 1:05AM
Perry hints he'd deal on schools bill
He might sign a measure with a teacher pay raise but with no relief on property taxes
By R.G. RATCLIFFE and CLAY ROBISON
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
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AUSTIN - Gov. Rick Perry on Monday indicated he would accept a scaled-back school finance bill with a pay raise for teachers and no property tax relief if that is all he can get from the Legislature this summer.
Legislative leaders were reluctant to endorse that approach, although Speaker Tom Craddick admitted the House still didn't have enough votes to increase state taxes, which would be necessary to pay for property tax cuts.
Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst also indicated the House and the Senate — after months of wrangling — still had major differences on how to restructure the school finance system.
Perry said he intends to sign into law the bill that would restore $33 billion in public school funding that he vetoed in June. Perry had eliminated the money from the state budget to give lawmakers an incentive to pass broad school and tax reform legislation.
But the veto never carried much weight. School finance legislation failed in the first special session Perry called this summer. Last week the House, in the second special session, voted down school finance reform legislation and a bill to swap higher state taxes for a cut in local school property taxes.
With the fate of the current session uncertain, the Senate Education Committee on Monday held a public hearing on a new school finance bill that was meant to mollify opposition from school districts. Much of the testimony from school officials, however, remained negative.
While signing a bill establishing new renewable energy goals for Texas, Perry was asked about rumors that legislators want to give up on school finance reform and property tax relief and just pass legislation to pay for textbooks and a teacher pay raise before adjourning.
Perry indicated he might be willing to take such a better-than-nothing bill.
"If you can get half a loaf versus a full loaf, you generally take a slice or two, if you can get that," Perry said. "We understand how this process plays out here."
But the governor also said he believes enough time remains in the special session to pass meaningful property tax relief and school reform. The session doesn't have to end until Aug. 19.
If the Legislature fails, Perry said he will make it an election issue.
"There's going to be an election in the not too distant future. The issue of appraisal caps and revenue caps and property tax relief is going to be a very high-profile issue. We can either do it now or we can talk about it in March and November of 2006," Perry said.
Craddick said it would be difficult to win House approval of any education bill without property tax cuts and significant changes in school operations.
Dewhurst said he wanted to increase school funding and raise teacher pay but said he would be "resistant" to doing that without more far-reaching educational changes.
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony from dozens of school officials Monday on a revised school bill that, Senate leaders said, would increase funding for schools by $2.8 billion over the next two years.
The measure includes an across-the-board $1,000 raise for teachers this fall, including the restoration of a $500 health-care stipend that lawmakers took from teachers two years ago. Teachers could get additional raises based on incentives.
But superintendents and school board members said the money wouldn't be enough to meet the needs of a growing number of minority students and other young people with special needs.
"The amount of money is not adequate for the challenges we're facing," said Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District.
"I don't believe this is a long-term solution," added Sarah Winkler, a member of the Alief School Board in Houston and representative of the Texas Association of School Boards.
Perry blasted school officials for challenging school finance in the courts on the grounds of inadequate funding while at the same time opposing the Legislature's school finance efforts.
A state district judge ruled last fall that the funding system was unconstitutional and inadequate, and the Texas Supreme Court is now considering the state's appeal.