Aug. 5, 2005, 1:05AM
Craddick urges the Legislature to end session early
By CLAY ROBISON and JANET ELLIOTT
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
"We are wasting time and money, and it is unproductive to prolong this process," he said in a written statement, issued after the House and Senate, each with high absenteeism, had held only brief, pro forma sessions before recessing until Monday.
Craddick, R-Midland, said the impasse also was holding up the distribution of millions of new textbooks only days before public schools begin fall classes. He said Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders could quickly approve the $295 million necessary to purchase the books but can't legally act while the full Legislature is still in session.
Perry said he wanted lawmakers to continue working.
"I don't think there's ever been a war won waving a white flag," he said.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, said he was "disappointed by Speaker Craddick's statement and the apparent unwillingness of the House to continue considering school reform."
Options to be weighed
He said he would meet with Perry and senators "to discuss our available options."
The session's mandatory adjournment date is Aug. 19, and the House can't quit this early without the Senate's agreement. The governor would be powerless to block an early adjournment but could call lawmakers back into another session.
Perry called this session after the House and Senate, meeting in their five-month regular session and a 30-day special session earlier this summer, failed to agree on education and tax issues.
Although the Senate Education Committee approved a new school finance bill on Thursday, Craddick insisted that the House still lacked the votes to resurrect an education bill or a related bill that would have raised state taxes to pay for cuts in local school taxes.
Both those bills were defeated in the House last week, the tax bill by a vote of 124-8. And the state constitution requires tax bills to originate in the House.
"At this point in the special session, neither chamber has been able to pass any (education) legislation, and it does not appear that they will," Craddick said.
"I suggest we sine die (adjourn early), continue working together to reach an agreement, request the Texas Education Agency send us a list of reforms they can carry out without the Legislature changing the statutes and wait to review the Supreme Court's ruling before formally meeting again."
The Texas Supreme Court last month heard the state's appeal of a district court ruling that declared the current school funding system unconstitutional and inadequate.
New textbooks for health, art, music and foreign language classes, approved by the State Board of Education in November, have been kept in warehouses because the Legislature, during its wrangling over school finance, hasn't released the necessary $295 million to pay for them.
The money is part of a $1.8 billion appropriation that remains unspent because it was tied to the approval of a new education bill.
Craddick said the governor and the Legislative Budget Board, which he and Dewhurst head, could use their budget execution authority to transfer the textbook money from elsewhere in the budget, including about $500 million in funds that Perry vetoed from various other programs. But, Craddick noted, the board can't meet while the Legislature is in session.
Perry and Dewhurst, however, said they planned to sign letters to about two dozen publishers, assuring them they will be paid and asking that the books be shipped in time for the start of fall classes.
"Knowing that they're going to get paid is better than nothing," Perry said.
But Craddick doesn't plan to sign the letter before the Legislature adjourns, spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said. She said lawyers have advised the speaker that it would be illegal to circumvent the budget execution process with an early letter.
In a related development, Perry on Thursday said he opposed a proposal by Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, to pass a slimmed-down education bill that would simply fund the textbooks and give teachers a pay raise.
Although he had indicated earlier this week that he could support such a plan, which both Dewhurst and Craddick opposed, he said Thursday that it wouldn't do enough to improve education.
Senate measure approved
Craddick's proposal to quit work was made public only minutes after the Senate Education Committee had approved its latest version of an education bill. Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she was stunned and didn't know what the Senate would do next.
"We just moved forward a bill that is a significant piece of legislation, and the Senate feels committed to moving forward with the process. Now that one half (of the Legislature) has decided to shut down, we'll have to re-evaluate that process," she said.
Neither the House nor the Senate had quorums for Thursday's sessions, at which no business was conducted. Fewer than 30 of the House's 150 members and about half of the 31 senators were present.