Friday, August 19, 2005

Session's end finds lawmakers — and $1.8 billion — idle

Aug. 19, 2005, 12:05PM


Session's end finds lawmakers — and $1.8 billion — idle

Taxpayer money may go unspent till school funding issue is resolved
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - When Texas lawmakers ended their second special session of the summer today, they left $1.8 billion of the taxpayers' money sitting in the state treasury.

That's enough to cover the money legislators withheld from accounts dedicated to funding trauma care and subsidizing electric bills for the poor, as well as to give a nominal pay raise to public school teachers who are on the state's minimum salary schedule.

Or it's enough to pay for a 9-cent cut in property taxes — a cut that would save a homeowner $135 a year on a house valued at $150,000.

The Legislature ended its final unproductive day today with the House adjourning at 10:47 a.m. and the Senate at 11:40 a.m. On Thursday, the Senate did not meet at all and the House met only briefly.

 Gov. Rick Perry had called the second 30-day session to handle school finance legislation, but there had been little action since the House voted down a tax bill July 26.

Since last year, the Legislature has failed to resolve the school funding issue or cut local property taxes after trying during three special, 30-day sessions and one regular, five-month session.

Lawmakers had wanted to spend the leftover $1.8 billion on public schools. But when the school finance and tax cut legislation fell apart, the money became destined to sit in the treasury until the Legislature meets again.

Unlike money Perry vetoed from the state budget, this money cannot be spent by budget execution authority because it never was appropriated.

House Speaker Tom Craddick said lawmakers had tried to spend the $1.8 billion during the first special session on public education, but the bill was killed by a filibuster staged by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

Craddick said lawmakers then became more interested in knowing how the Texas Supreme Court will rule in a challenge to the school finance system that has been brought by property-rich and property-poor school districts.

"It gets tougher the closer we get to the hearing date," he said.

Craddick said he has thought for some time that the Legislature should not act until the court rules. "I'm totally against the court drawing the plan, but I think we need to see where we are," he said.

Collecting money
Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said he thinks the Republican leadership is hanging onto the $1.8 billion to use in connection with the court's ruling.

"The reason they're holding back on all this stuff is to use it as political leverage instead of financial leverage," he said.

"All of those interests that want to lay claim to that money would be more interested in agreeing to something later if they hadn't already gotten what they want to get out of the package."

Hochberg noted the Republicans in 2003 withheld spending of $1 billion because they knew the state budget would be "in the ditch" again in 2005. He said Democrats had wanted to spend the money to fully fund the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Texas Grants higher education scholarships.

"I don't like the idea of us collecting money and having it sit in the treasury," he said.

Hochberg said there are numerous public school funding items that House and Senate lawmakers have agreed on, such as technology funding for schools. He said it would be simple to spend part or all of the $1.8 billion on those items now.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said the legislative leadership decided to reserve the money until after the court rules.

'We're going to fix it'
"If we spend that money now without knowing what direction the court is going to give us, it might be foolish spending," Pitts said. "Hopefully, we'll be back here, not next week, but in a couple of months and be able to do the right thing for our teachers."

Pitts said that because lawmakers spent the state's "rainy day fund" to balance the $139 billion, two-year budget, the $1.8 billion became the state's "savings account."

"We know the roof is leaking and we're going to have to fix it," he said. "We can't fix it today ... but we're going to fix it before the next biennium, before we come back here in the next regular session."

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