Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Texas leaders threaten to sue over strings on education funds

By Dave Montgomery | Star-Telegram
August 5, 2010

AUSTIN -- In the latest round of the Texas vs. Washington political battle, the state's Republican leaders Thursday blasted a U.S. Senate-passed mandate on education funding in Texas, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst threatening legal action against the federal government if the House upholds the measure in a critical vote next week.

The provision applies only to Texas and was crafted by Texas Democrats in Congress, who say they want to ensure that more than $800 million in federal education dollars earmarked for the state isn't diverted to other purposes. But Gov. Rick Perry and Dewhurst said compliance with the measure would violate the Texas Constitution and consequently prevent Texas from receiving the education funds.

"Washington is deft at placing targets on the backs of Texans, and this proposal paints a target on our schoolteachers and schoolchildren," Perry said.

Dewhurst, presiding officer of the state Senate, said he plans to ask Attorney General Greg Abbott to sue the federal government if the House complies with the Senate version of the bill and retains a House-passed amendment authored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat.

Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both Republicans, opposed the measure, which was part of legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. A House vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

The bill includes $10 billion in education funds that would be available to the states. Texas's share has been estimated at $800 million to $830 million.

Doggett's amendment stems from Democrats' assertions that the Republican-led state government mishandled federal stimulus money last year, using it to bail itself out of a budget jam instead of drawing from a rainy-day fund. Democrats have also blasted Perry for refusing to apply for a share of $4.3 billion from President Barack Obama's Race to the Top school improvement program.

Under the amendment, Texas would not have access to the education funds unless the governor certifies that the state will maintain the proportion of state education funding for the 2010-2011 fiscal year and for two more fiscal years through 2013. Perry and Dewhurst said the requirement violates a state constitutional ban prohibiting the governor from committing to future legislative spending, and they contend that means the state is unable to claim the education money.

"Congress has crafted legislation that will exclusively harm Texas public schools and our teachers," said Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott. "Every member of the Texas congressional delegation who supported this measure owes Texas voters an explanation as to why they are in favor of imposing punitive measures on our schools."

The dispute is playing out just days before Obama is scheduled to visit the state Monday for two political fundraisers, including one in Dallas, and an education-related public event at the University of Texas at Austin. It is also the latest in a growing litany of federal-state confrontations over issues that include environmental policy, healthcare and the economy.

But unlike the earlier disputes, the new uproar pits state Republican leaders against the 12 Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation. Both sides contend that they are acting in the best interests of Texas schools, and Doggett disputed Republicans assertions that Texas would be unable to get the money.

"There is no constitutional limitation on doing right by our Texas schoolchildren," Doggett said. "The obligation that this amendment places on Texas is to spend new education dollars on education purposes."

The Democratic lawmakers also had the backing of 33 school district superintendents and seven statewide education groups who wrote congressional leaders in support of the amendment. The group included Fort Worth school Superintendent Melody Johnson.

"With Texas facing a serious budget shortfall in the coming biennial budget, the last thing we need to allow is these funds to be diverted to fill non-education gaps in the budget," the educators said.

Hutchison and Cornyn both denounced the amendment as discriminatory against Texas and challenged Democrats to reverse their position in next week's House vote. "Texas children shouldn't have their education shortchanged because of petty partisan politics," Cornyn said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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