Education cuts disputed as senators eye 'rainy day fund' for roads, water


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on April 11, 2013 at 6:13 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 11 at 8:14 PM

AUSTIN -- As Texas grows, so does the burden on its endless miles of roads and highways, as well as a water supply dogged by drought.

"If the drought persists, which all indications suggest that it will, by year 2060 over 50 percent of Texans throughout our state could be faced with an inadequate supply of water during times of drought," said Heather Harward, executive director of the H2O4 Texas Coalition. "It is a serious and grave situation."

On Thursday, lawmakers offered a potential lifeline. Considered off-limits last session, the state's savings account known as the "rainy day fund" is expected to reach nearly $12 billion over the next two years.

At a Thursday hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, lawmakers advanced a measure that would allow voters to approve using $6 billion of that for water and transportation projects. As senators heard testimony on SJR 1, the discussion reignited another debate.

"I submit to you that the third leg of that stool should be public education," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center. "It's every bit as much a part of infrastructure of this state as are transportation and water."

The education funding debate also took a new twist, this time concerning just how much school funding has been cut. Referencing a claim made by former Republican lawmaker Bill Ratliff in an interview with Texas Monthly, State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) argued the four year total could be more than the $5.4 billion cut from public education by the 82nd Texas Legislature in 2011.

"The actual decline in resources provided from the state to public ed since 2009 is $8.3 billion," Davis told committee members.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) argued the reverse was true.

"The reality is if you look at it on an all funds basis, all sources of money, school districts actually experienced a cut in the aggregate of about $800 million," Williams told KVUE, suggesting school funding is actually up $4.5 billion under the current proposed budget.

Declining to elaborate on the discrepancy in numbers, Williams said his efforts are concentrated on ensuring increases in education spending are done in a way that would most benefit classrooms and increase equity.

"Our school districts of course can tell the story of the cuts that they've experienced and what the impact of those cuts have been," said Davis, telling KVUE efforts to tap the rainy day fund for schools will continue.

Meanwhile Williams suggests an upcoming comptroller's study on property values could alter the conversation.

"I felt like it's important to have that information before we make a final decision," Williams explained. "Because we want to make a thoughtful addition to public school funding and not just throw money over the fence for the sake of political expediency."