Preliminary budget proposals lay foundation for education funding fight


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on January 15, 2013 at 8:01 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 15 at 8:21 PM

AUSTIN -- A quiet start to Tuesday's meeting of the Texas House masked a brewing battle that will be anything but.

Last week Texas Comptroller Susan Combs predicted a significant increase in revenue for the 83rd Texas Legislature, along with $8.8 billion in unspent revenue rolled over from the last session.

On Monday, the Texas Senate and House outlined conservative budget plans decreasing spending and leaving billions of new revenue on the table.

While trimming back state spending in areas, such as general government spending and higher education, lawmakers promise at least some relief this time for education.

"We funded growth in our public schools," State Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie), author of the House version of the budget, told KVUE Tuesday.

Pitts says HB-1 is a starting point in a debate complicated by a school finance lawsuit and multiple agencies fighting for limited funds.

Despite the increase in available revenue, the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) voted in November to cap spending growth at 10.71 percent over last session. The cap falls short of projected revenue available for the 2014-15 biennium, but could be overturned by a majority vote.

"Fortunately we have a lot of money," Pitts said. "We have over $5 billion that we have extra from where our introduced bill is. We have a spending limit that would limit us to spend only $3.7 billion. So we have some money to see what the courts do and advance that."

"That $3.7 billion cannot all be spent on one thing, we've got a lot of other demand. This is a basic, bare bones budget that we're filing," explained Pitts, who said the lawsuit's outcome could ultimately play a major factor in determining funding.

"One of the big fighting points in that lawsuit is adequacy," Pitts said. "I don't know how you define adequate, but we're going to be watching what the trial court does and we'll probably be getting a decision within these 140 days."

"I don't expect to see any increases, significant increases over the enrollment growth," said Talmadge Heflin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Fiscal Policy. "My guess is that they're standing pat on everything but enrollment growth until they hear from the courts."

After calling for caution in the wake of the comptroller's biennial revenue estimate last Monday, Heflin said both chambers presented budget outlines that were reserved, while allowing for some degree of modification upward or downward.

For those hoping to see a large portion of the $5.4 billion cut from education last session restored, the initial budget plans don't offer much hope.

"We have fewer teachers today in classrooms than we did in 2009, and at the same time we have over 230,000 more kids in the education system than we did then," said Josh Sanderson with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "Also, and every parent knows this, we have an accountability system and a testing system that's more rigorous than it ever has been in the history of the state. So we're literally telling parents, students, teachers, our schools to achieve more than they ever have with fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms."

Sanderson also questions whether the adjustment for enrollment growth offered by HB-1 and SB-1 is adequate to maintain current levels.

"I think it can be disputed as to whether or not they're actually funding enrollment growth because even though it's early in the process, the money that's in the budget now to fund the new students added to public education, which is about 83,000 a year, is based on the numbers per student that were cut $500 per student last biennium," said Sanderson. "So it's funding enrollment growth at a lesser rate than we traditionally fund it."

"It's more conservative that what many people thought would happen," said State Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin).

Dukes acknowledges given the spending restrictions full in place, fully restoring the cuts made last session will be difficult. At the same time, she notes the fight over education funding will be conducted on many fronts.

"There will be a debate," said Dukes. "When you look at the House version of the bill versus the Senate version of the bill, the Senate version does have about $98 million for testing, the House version has zero. The reason for that for the leaders on the House side is because they believe there should be discussion about the testing rather than just funding it."

Both chambers are out until next Wednesday.