Despite pressure from teacher groups and others, top lawmakers cited holes they must patch in the current budget, a general caution about higher spending and a desire to see how courts rule in the latest suit over how the state funds education.
Many school districts, pointing to an improved Texas economy, are seeking relief. But key budget-writers say the initial two-year plan they’ll unveil soon won’t replace the $5.4 billion the last
Legislature sliced from state maintenance and operation aid and discretionary grants.
That means no substantial help to handle bigger classes and no restored grants for half-day prekindergarten and remedial instruction, decisions that are expected to rekindle tensions with school advocates calling for more money.
“The introduced bill won’t have that,” though it may include an additional $1 billion or so to cover student enrollment growth, said Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who heads the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
Pitts said he expects Comptroller Susan Combs’ two-year revenue estimate, which limits what lawmakers can spend, “to be pretty conservative, and so we’re being very conservative.”
Sen. Tommy Williams, who recently became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he’s skeptical of claims by teacher organizations that the cuts have “devastated” schools.
Williams, R-The Woodlands, joined Pitts in stressing “the limited amount of revenue we have” for state services.
The budget chiefs acknowledged that a recent surge in sales tax and energy production tax revenue has been impressive, leaving lawmakers with as much as $8 billion more in the current cycle than they planned to spend.
Still, they noted that money largely will disappear if, as expected, lawmakers pass a huge supplemental spending bill early in the session that begins in January.
Leaders say that is needed to patch the existing budget’s $4.7 billion Medicaid IOU, reverse a planned delay of the $2 billion August 2013 school payment, and cover smaller, unexpected costs, such as fighting wildfires in fall 2011.
Rainy day fund
But a two-thirds vote by the GOP-led House and Senate is needed to spend the money, effectively giving fiscal hawks and tea party adherents, if they object, a veto.
Gov. Rick Perry might also oppose that, as last time he pushed lawmakers to keep more than 60 percent of the fund’s balance.
“There’s not the will to spend rainy day funds for recurring expenses,” Pitts said.
He and Williams agreed that perhaps a small portion of the rainy day dollars could be used to create a revolving loan fund for infrastructure projects.
“The strong sentiment is that it can only be used for one-time expenditures,” Williams said.
Watching the trial
Many suburban Republicans also are pushing alternatives, such as more charter schools and vouchers or other expanded choices for dissatisfied parents.
Some legislators also said they want to wait to see what happens in the latest round of school-finance litigation that districts filed against the state.
A trial is under way in state court in Austin on whether state school aid is sufficient and fairly distributed.
The Texas Supreme Court ultimately will have to settle the matter, and it’s unlikely the high court will do so before lawmakers go home in late May.
Some Republicans’ patience with superintendents and district officials may be wearing thin.
“I don’t like it, I’m not crazy about the school districts’ suing the state,” Williams said. “They’d be a lot better served if they’d come down here and try to work this out.”
Linda Bridges, president of the Texas AFT teachers’ union, said the education lobby decided not to sue before the 2011 session and was hammered with budget cuts.
She said some classrooms today have as many as 40 children, and grants have been eliminated for programs to improve student success, even as lawmakers demand reductions in dropout rates and higher test scores.
The Legislature, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, rarely has boosted spending in great numbers without a court edict threatening the unthinkable, such as closure of the state’s more than 9,000 public schools, Bridges said.
“It doesn’t seem they know how to respond to issues like this without being forced to by a court,” she said.
“Last session, we funded everything else first and we funded public education last with what we had left,” said Turner, a veteran House budget writer.
Parents and school advocates “need to be screaming and hollering and emailing us, starting on Jan. 8 and keeping it up to the end of the session,” he said.
Former chief House budget writer Talmadge Heflin said the cuts’ effects were exaggerated.
“The districts have absorbed those cuts. They found other ways to deliver the education without depending on that money,” said Heflin, who is now with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Senate budget chief Williams said his own Cypress-Fairbanks school district north of Houston — now the state’s sixth-largest, with 63,500 students — even has managed to reduce taxes.
Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said GOP leaders probably are posturing, comparing it to the initial House proposal two years ago for $9 billion in school cuts.
“The story became the restoration of some of the cuts instead of focusing on how can we cut $5.4 billion from education in a school system that we’re holding to higher and higher standards,” said Strama, a member of the Public Education Committee.
“That was actually a smart political strategy to sell a dumb public policy.”
Strama said Republican leaders may ease up some when a final budget starts taking shape.
Don’t count on it, though, said Rep. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican who, with tea party support, upset an ally to Speaker Joe Straus two years ago — and then beat him again in a primary rematch this year.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to do any restoration.”
Follow Robert T. Garrett on Twitter at @RobertTGarrett.