Tuesday, May 10, 2011

School finance inaction may impede budget compromise

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The clock is a-tickin' for Texas lawmakers to cobble together a budget compromise that enacts deep cuts to public education.

But with less than three weeks left in the legislative session, neither chamber has debated, much less passed, a school finance bill that would reduce the state aid owed to school districts by as much as $6.5 billion.

Both the House and Senate budgets are precariously balanced on the assumption that such legislation would be approved. Failure to do so would probably force lawmakers into a special session this summer.

"It's essential that we pass some type of school finance reform in order to successfully end the session. So it's the No. 1 priority right now," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

On the House side, Calendars Committee Chairman Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, said the school finance legislation would not be among the bills to make it to the floor before a key deadline at the end of the week.

"There are a lot of interconnected parts that aren't fitting together yet," said Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

The House plan could still hitch a ride on another piece of legislation, but at least one local lawmaker, Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, said he wouldn't be able to support it.

Although Workman backed the House budget bill that reduced the school funding, he said Tuesday that the House school finance bill hurts his school districts too much to get his vote.

Under the House bill, for instance, the Austin school district would lose $81 million — 12 percent of its state aid — in the first year of the 2012-13 budget. The next year, the impact would be $111 million.

The Senate bill eases the pain a bit, in part because it reduces funding by only $4 billion over the two-year budget. That scenario would have Austin getting 7.5 percent less in the first year and 8.5 percent less the next.

Even so, Senate leaders have been struggling to muster the 21 votes needed to bring Senate Bill 22 up for debate. The arcane procedural workaround used last week to free up the budget bill is not available this time.

Ogden huddled with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and several senators for more than an hour Tuesday in pursuit of a deal that would allow the bill to come up for debate.

At least two Democrats would have to jump on board for the bill to move, but they have been reluctant to help the Republicans reduce education spending.

Ogden said Tuesday that senators are working on a deal that would include a promise to restore the school districts to full funding when the economy improves.

But the state has made — and broken — school funding promises before.

In 2006, the state was forced to rejigger its school finance system after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had effectively enacted an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

Lawmakers responded by reducing local school property tax rates by one-third and dedicating more state money to the schools to replace the local money.

The state promised school districts that their overall funding would not suffer as a result. But the state is now reneging on the deal, said Lynn Moak, a school finance consultant.

"This session has demonstrated that that commitment is a hollow commitment," Moak said.

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