AUSTIN — Public schools that lost $5.4 billion in state funding two years ago could get some of that money back in time for summer, as the top budget writer in the Texas House said Thursday talks are under way to beef up an immediate spending bill with extra dollars for education.
Once the state settles IOUs in the coming weeks to pay outstanding debts, such as Medicaid and the cost of fighting 2011 wildfires, lawmakers are expected to have nearly $1 billion left to spend on the current Texas budget.
Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, didn't say how much could be set aside for immediate relief to school districts but acknowledged that negotiations have started.
"There is a group of members that are in discussion right now about what we can do for public education in the supplemental bill," Pitts said.
Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard said a quick infusion of cash to school districts now would help administrators pay for students needing to retake standardized tests this summer.
"This is just not throwing money out there just to give it to them," Howard said. "It's for a particular purpose and need."
Penny-pinching school districts will have to be patient with the Legislature, though. A rule overwhelmingly adopted by the Texas House on Thursday tightened rules on what can be included in the first supplemental bill — a $4.8 billion emergency spending measure for Medicaid that is expected to be taken up by the full chamber next week.
Pitts said the doctors and hospitals will go unpaid unless the state settles the Medicaid debt by a March deadline, and stressed that the bill shouldn't be slowed down by amendments and debate.
"Today's vote was an important step in the process of meeting our obligations for the rest of this budget cycle and ensuring that Medicaid providers are paid in a timely manner," Republican House Speaker Joe Straus said.
Some Democrats want to force majority Republicans to vote as soon as possible this session on restoring education funding slashed in 2011 when lawmakers faced a $27 billion shortfall. That discussion is now likely to happen next month in another supplemental bill, which is also expected to include the money to cover the wildfire costs.