Sunday, May 07, 2006

Disagreement over wealth sharing could derail special session

Associated Press Writers
AUSTIN — Tempers are flaring. Negotiations are crumbling. Could it be the beginning of the end for the fourth special legislative session on Texas school funding?

Senate leaders say there's still time for compromise, but a raucous disagreement over wealth sharing Friday threatened to derail attempts to meet a court deadline to find another source of money for schools.

The day began with a meltdown in a Senate committee that had been set to approve a key component of the school finance plan. The bill, which would use part of the state's budget surplus to reduce school property taxes, ultimately was adopted by a 9-2 vote of the committee, with three present but refusing to vote. It next goes before the full Senate.

"We did not play well together today, and I would have preferred otherwise," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-College Station, chairman of the Senate Finance committee. "But I think you need to appreciate the pressure that everybody's under ... sometimes people need to blow off steam."

A short time after the Senate rumble, the House rejected the Senate's version of another key bill that would dedicate most of the tax revenue generated from a new business tax system to property tax cuts.

Both bills are crucial elements in the Legislature's attempt to answer a Texas Supreme Court ruling that called the state's school funding method unconstitutional. Lawmakers are in the third week of a 30-day special session. The court set a June 1 deadline to fix the problem, or money to public schools would be frozen.

Sen. Florence Shapiro added education reforms, including a $2,000 teacher pay raise, to the surplus bill. But committee members argued over how much property-tax money wealthy districts should be required to share with poorer districts.

Shapiro and five other senators walked out after the committee's chairman wouldn't let her scrap the education reforms rather than accept a change, which would increase the amount of money poor schools are guaranteed from the state.

"What this amendment does is it takes that money from all the schoolchildren and it only gives it to a certain number of schoolchildren," said Shapiro, a Republican from Plano. "I'm opposed to that. That is not why we're here."

The amendment eventually was adopted, but Shapiro said she plans to block the measure from being considered by the full Senate.

"All this did was go through a meaningless process because it will not come up to the (Senate) floor," Shapiro said. "I have the votes to block it."

The committee also adopted a $1 increase in the cigarette tax, to take effect in 2007.

Earlier in the day, the walkout left Ogden without enough senators to vote on the legislation. So, he ordered the sergeant-at-arms to round them up and bring them back, a tactic that hasn't been used in the Legislature since the dramatic 2003 redistricting battle.

Ogden delayed the meeting for about an hour before any of them returned. All but one of the committee members were present when the meeting resumed.

Meanwhile, Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick ruled the Senate violated legislative rules when it changed the tax dedication bill to give a portion of future revenue to education, instead of keeping it all for property tax cuts, as the House had wanted.

The current 30-day special session ends May 16. Republican Gov. Rick Perry could call another session if necessary.

Perry's re-election bid this year could rest on the outcome of the special session. He has spent months working to round up support for a new business tax proposal.

"We're not dead yet," Ogden said. "At the end of the day, (school finance legislation) has to pass and cooler heads will prevail."

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