Democrats prevail on school funding

BY DAVE MONTGOMERY | Fort Worth Star-Telegram | May 20, 2013

AUSTIN — With time running out, legislative negotiators on Friday forged a two-year spending plan that includes an additional $3.9 billion for education, offsetting deep cuts imposed in public school funding two years ago.

The spending package, spread over three pieces of legislation, also calls for a total 3 percent pay increase for state employees as well as commitments to $2 billion in long-range water funding and at least $1 billion in tax relief.

Members of both Houses have just over a week to ratify the 2014-15 budget before lawmakers draw the curtain on their 140-day legislative session on May 27.

Gov. Rick Perry, who has threatened to call members back to work in special session if lawmakers don’t meet his demands on water, transportation and tax relief, is reserving judgment on the budget until it passes the Legislature, said a spokesman.

“We will take a look at the bill and make a decision on it once the Legislature sends it to us in its final form,” said deputy press secretary Josh Havens.

Staff members with the Legislative Budget Board were expected to work over the weekend to calculate the budget’s bottom line, but the total was expected to be somewhere around $195 billion in state and federal funds, reflecting a modest increase over current spending.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, the Senate’s chief budget-writer, said the proposed $94 billion in spending from state general revenue falls about $700 million below a constitutional spending cap, presumably satisfying many conservatives who vowed to oppose any measure that threatened to exceed the limit.

“I think we’ve written a good budget for the people of Texas,” said Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “It’s a conservative budget that reflects our values.”

The increase in education funding marked a victory for unified Democrats, who made restoration of the 2011 school cuts their top priority from the outset of the 2013 session.

The education cuts were part of an overall $15 billion in reductions that lawmakers imposed to confront a $27 billion shortfall just after the national recession. The 2011 Legislature made $5.4 billion in education reductions, including a total of $4 billion in state aid to public schools.

Under the this year’s proposed spending package, the Legislature would allocate a total of an additional $3.9 billion in education, including $3.4 billion to the state’s Foundation School Program and the remainder for pension increases through the Teacher Retirement System.

The total package is dependent on approval of $200 million in education funds in a supplemental budget bill awaiting action next week.

“Today the school children, parents and taxpayers of Texas have won an important first battle in the effort to restore the disastrous cuts to public education from last session,” said State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth who staged a filibuster on the last day of the 2011 session to protest the school cuts.

“After a great deal of work and a lot of determination, we’ve persuaded the legislative leadership to return $3.4 billion to the school children of Texas,” she said. “While I will continue to fight for full restoration of our public school budget, the funding increase is an enormous improvement from the leadership’s initial plan to add only $1.5 billion.”

Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, a former teacher and a member of the budget-writing appropriations committee, also applauded the restoration of more than $3 billion for education, which she called “our most important investment.”

Patrick added, however, that it “remains unclear if the Legislature will find the funding and consensus to invest in necessary infrastructure like water and roads in these last days of the session.”’

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the number two member of the House Democratic leadership, called the budget a “a good compromise.”

“I wish the Legislature would fully restore the money that was slashed two years ago but this is a compromise and a positive development and I believe I can support this budget,” said the Tarrant County House member. “While it’s not perfect, it’s a big improvement.”

In contrast to the 2011 session, this year’s proposed budget reflects a statewide economic rebound that gave lawmakers a robust $101 billion in tax revenue, money used to at least partially roll back the cuts from two years ago.

Williams said the budget also calls for a “very significant increase” of about 8 percent for public-funded colleges and universities and about 16 percent for health-related institutions. Community colleges will get a “richer funding formula” under the proposal, Williams said.

Cuts in taxes and fees will total “just north” of $1 billion, Williams said. Perry outlined tax relief as a major priority in his State of the State Address in February, calling for a total package of $1.8 billion.

The plan would also restore reductions in the popular Texas Grants student assistance, providing enough money to reach about 83 percent of eligible students, said budget writers.

Under the proposed salary package, the nearly 220,000 state employees will get a 1 percent pay boost in 2014, followed by a 2 percent increase in 2015.

As part of the multi-faceted budget process, members of the House Appropriations Committee approved a constitutional amendment that, if ratified by voters, would create a revolving bank to fund local projects under the state water plan.

The $2 billion to capitalize the fund would come through a drawdown from the state’s nearly $12 billion rainy day fund, proposed in a supplemental budget that will be considered next week.

The commitment to water salvages what appeared to be a doomed effort to fund the 50-year state plan to help Texas confront what planners say is a looming water shortage in the nation’s second most populous state. A water funding bill was killed by a point of order in the House and reviving the proposal was a top priority of budget negotiators.

Negotiators were effectively under a deadline to get the budget completed by Friday to give staff members enough time to prepare the documents.

“It’s a complicated process,” Williams explained. “You don’t just go down there and type it up and make a bunch of copies. There’s a lot of work and computations. … To further delay that would not have been in the best interests of getting this bill passed.”

Earlier Friday, an angry House member threatened to disrupt the final days of the session to protest the Senate’s handling of one his bills.

The threats by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, escalated tensions between the two chambers but legislative leaders engaged in cell-phone diplomacy to resolve the differences.

“Is this not the same movie we’ve seen before?” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst rhetorically asked reporters, recalling similar outbursts in sessions past. “If you write that the clouds are darkening and it’s lightning, I don’t see at all.”

Dutton threatened a parliamentary protest against the Senate by vowing to knock Senate bills off the local and consent calendar. The 28-year lawmaker later told reporters he had carried his threat but House and Senate leaders later said they local calendar remained intact as they worked to mollify Dutton’s concerns.

Nevertheless, Dutton’s threats injected an element of uncertainty – as well as legislative theater – to the proceedings as he complained that a member of the Senate had bottled up a local bill that the was trying to pass for his Harris County district.

In a personal privilege speech on the House floor, Dutton recalled his father telling him, “You need to be scared of somebody in this House.” Then, referring to the Senate, he added: “They need to be scared of somebody in this House.”

Dutton’s colleagues responded with cheers and a standing ovation after the lawmaker accused the Senate of being disrespectful to the House, declaring that it’s “gotten to the point now where I think we ought to do something about it.”

The day opened amid signs of a budget breakthrough after Dewhurst emerged from behind-the-scenes talks late Thursday to announce that the House and Senate were near agreement on a budget.

Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, said he met with House leaders to keep budget talks on track while lawmakers focused on clearing hundreds of bills – many of them non-controversial parochial measures – in the Legislature’s traditionally frantic countdown to the adjournment.

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