BUDGET: House adds school money while Senators spar


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

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Posted on March 21, 2013 at 6:43 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 21 at 7:03 PM

AUSTIN -- With smiles and applause, the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a $193.8 billion biennial budget for debate by the full House. 
Along with increasing funding in areas such as state services, a last minute amendment by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) brought the total additional funding for public education to $2.5 billion over enrollment growth.
"It's a good bill," praised Vice Chairman state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston). "I think it's a bill that reflects us doing the best we can with what we have available and trying to establish what those priorities are."
On Wednesday the Senate approved a $195.5 billion budget boasting increased funding for education as well as mental health and Child Protective Services (CPS). Adjusted for changes in the supplemental appropriations bill passed in February, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) says the the current budget is an increase of less than four percent a year over the 2012-13 budget.
"I think it's a good bill and I think it's a bill that we can all be proud of. We've all acknowledged that there are things that we need to continue to work on," Williams told KVUE Thursday. "There are some things that still need to be tweaked in the bill, but overall I think this is a great starting point for us."
Passed by a vote of 29 to two, Williams says the Senate budget increases public education funding by $1.4 billion over enrollment growth and restores per student allotment to 2011 levels in 40 percent of school districts. 
"That's absolutely not true, there's not a single school district in Texas that is getting the same or better per pupil funding than they were getting in 2011," said state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), one of the two dissenting votes. 
"In fact the average cut per student funding in Texas in 2011 was $1,046 per pupil," Davis told KVUE Thursday. "This budget puts back at the low end about $4 per student and at the high end for some districts around $200 per student. It doesn't get anywhere close to restoring the funding cuts that occurred and there is not a single district in Texas that will be getting more money per year for their students than they were getting in 2011." 
Davis has argued for months that lawmakers should find a way to fully restore the $5.4 billion cut from public education by the 82nd Texas Legislature in 2011. Pointing out that the state's Economic Stabilization Fund (better known as the "rainy day fund") is predicted to top $11.8 billion by 2015, Davis has advocated tapping it in order to make up the difference.
"Instead it's being discussed as though this funding scale is the new normal in the State of Texas and that our school districts need to live with it, charge higher taxes at the local level in order to offset it and be quiet about it," said Davis. "What we know thankfully is our school districts have not been quiet about it, and they've done as they should. They've gone to the courts to say please make the Legislature respond to its constitutional obligation to adequately fund our public school system." 
"Let me be clear. I want to make sure that our public schools are funded adequately and the problem with Senator Davis' debate is that she just doesn't have her facts straight," said Williams. "The schools are in much better shape right now than she thinks they are, and the progress that we have to make to improve the  Funding for those schools, it's within our grasp, but she's working against us instead of with us to accomplish that."   
With the lawsuit over school finance ruled in favor of the school districts, the case is now likely headed to the Texas Supreme Court. Lawmakers are preparing for a special session in the spring of 2014 to specifically address school finance pending the court's decision. Meanwhile, Williams says the best chance for compromise could come in the conference committee where the Senate and House budget bills are reconciled.
"I hope that that's the case," replied Davis. "I hope he will be true to his word in that regard, and I hope that Texans will hold him true to his word in that regard and demand that the Legislature respond as it should to the damage that's been inflicted on the public schools in their districts across this state by asking them that they do that."
Meanwhile, Williams is looking ahead to major budget items he says will have to be addressed separately, such as a looming "fiscal cliff"  transportation infrastructure. Without overhauling the current funding formula, he warns deteriorating roads could slow economic growth and place an increasing number of road construction contractors in jeopardy.
"It is a fiscal cliff," said Williams. "What's going to happen in 2015 is the amount of highway jobs that are awarded will go from $4 billion a year to $2.5 billion a year. Now if we want to just stay even with congestion so that it doesn't get any worse in our state, we should be doing somewhere in between $6.5 and $8 billion of awards a year. So we're doing about half of what I would say we need to do as a very minimum and we're going even lower than that."
With HB 1 cleared through committee, the House budget will be up for debate before the full chamber two weeks from today. As far as what else could end up tacked on or taken out by the time the bill meets final approval, Pitts isn't ruling anything out.
"It's not over till it's over," said Pitts.