Tuesday, August 16, 2005

On school finance, third time's not the charm

With no House vote on tax plan, Senate can't fully consider changes.
By Jason Embry
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A decision by House leaders Monday not to vote today on a shift in state taxes appeared to dash the last hopes that the Legislature would change the way Texas pays for public schools.

Barring a near-miraculous turn of events, lawmakers will not have time to pass a major overhaul in state education funding before the their special session ends Friday. That means lawmakers, in their third attempt of the year, will fail to lower school property taxes, give all Texas teachers a pay raise and change the way the state doles out money to school districts.

Schools will have enough money to operate as usual this year, but most of the financial and academic reforms that legislative leaders wanted will stay on hold.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Monday that the House would have to sign off on a tax proposal and send it to the Senate today, and then a Senate committee would have to approve it before midnight for the full Senate to consider it before the session ends. Senate rules require committees to approve legislation at least 72 hours before the end of a session.

But Alexis DeLee, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, said the House will not vote on any bills today.

Even if the House approves a tax bill later this week, Senate rules require four-fifths of the Senate to vote to forgo normal procedure and vote on it before Friday.

"I would think that getting a four-fifths vote on a tax bill is going to be pretty hard to do," Dewhurst said.

Craddick said more than a week ago that the special session was a waste of time and money because lawmakers could not agree on a school finance solution. One of his House allies then offered one more tax proposal late last week, but Craddick said it would not reach the floor unless it had the votes to pass.

The Senate passed a school finance proposal, but tax plans must start in the House.

"There's nothing more we can do unless the House is able to send us a tax bill and a school finance bill," Dewhurst said.

Gov. Rick Perry, who earlier this year vowed to keep lawmakers in Austin until they approve a school finance plan, declined to say Monday whether he would call lawmakers back for a third special session.

"We'll make that decision at the appropriate time," he said.

The state Supreme Court is reviewing a district judge's ruling that the school finance system is unconstitutional, largely because of a shortage of state funding, and the Legislature might not come back until the high court offers direction.

Some of the sticking points between the House and Senate have been how much money to spend on student laptops versus textbooks, how much tax money the wealthiest school districts in the state should have to share with other schools, and which taxes to raise to replace the dollars that schools would lose from property-tax cuts.

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