Thursday, May 14, 2015

Aycock euthanizes school finance bill, focus shifts to budget battle

The Lege will wait for the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on the latest lawsuit, arguments beginning sometime this fall, before scheduling a special session after that to deal with it.  So maybe next year.

A $3 billion effort to boost and overhaul how Texas public schools are funded died Thursday when the author of the legislation withdrew it ahead of a key deadline.

The proposal, House Bill 1759, crafted in response to a lawsuit alleging insufficient funding in the system, would simplify and bring more equity to the system, in addition to the extra funding.

It would also reduce the number of districts forced to send property tax revenue back to the state under Texas' "recapture" or "Robin Hood" system that shifts money from property-rich to property-poor districts.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the Killeen Republican and House Education Committee chairman who sponsored the measure, said Thursday it was tantamount to "tearing up and starting over" with the system for funding to educate the state's 5.4 million schoolchildren.

The complex proposal cleared Aycock's committee on a 7-0 vote last month, but it was seen as a long shot in the more conservative state Senate.

It's been death by chub for the past few days, and even as this is posted, in the Capitol.

“We could kill all day with this bill, easily,” he said. “I don’t think it is fair to leave this bill pending and kill everything else when we know already the Senate will probably and almost certainly not even consider the measure if we pass it.”


A state district judge last year ruled that the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to adequately and fairly fund education for the state’s five million public school students. The decision came in a lawsuit filed by more than 600 school districts, including Dallas and several others from North Texas.

Aycock and House leaders argued earlier this year that lawmakers should get started on a funding fix now rather than wait for the high court to tell them what to do. So they filed legislation, approved by the House Public Education Committee, to correct the deficiencies highlighted in the court case.

The measure, relying on a $3 billion boost in state funding for public schools, would provide more money for schools that educate about 94 percent of the students in Texas. Most Dallas-area districts would see a significant increase under the bill. The Dallas school district see its funding jump about $32 million a year, an increase of 3.2 percent.

“We wanted to do the most good for the most students,” Aycock said. He pointed out that the plan “gives schools more resources and delivers them in a smarter and more effective way…while presenting a major opportunity to improve public education in Texas.”

One of the major changes is a reduction in the amount of Robin Hood “recapture” in the system, where high property wealth districts are required to share their revenue with other districts to equalize funding. The House bill cuts that amount by $321 million a year.

The biggest resistance to the House plan was in the Senate, where leaders indicated they wanted to wait for the Supreme Court ruling. No hearings on school finance have been held in the Senate in the current legislative session.

Ah yes, the Texas Senate.  The crucible of extreme conservative governing has bubbled over several times in recent days, with the dregs in the kettle still simmering in the last days of the session.  The next big fight, the state's budget with its accompanying tax cut squabbles, is being held under the big, hairy foot of Dan Patrick.  (This is the Mayweather/Pacquiao equivalent in the 84th.)  House leader Dennis Bonnen is chafing under the lieutenant governor's yoke, and shows no sign of yielding.  So we're headed for a showdown.  Chris Hooks at the Texas Observer nails it.

Bonnen, a Lege veteran, charged Patrick with making “some errors in his exuberance.” He laughed at the idea that Patrick offered his plan to boost local school districts. He suggested Patrick hadn’t done much “punching the numbers.”

We’re entering the last stages of one of the strangest and most consequential standoffs of the session: The fight over whether the crummy tax plan originating in the Senate or the crummy tax plan originating in the House should pass. The former would reduce property tax growth and cut business taxes, and the latter would cut sales taxes and business taxes.

Bonnen’s talk this week—along with op-eds he wrote for major Texas newspapers—are his way of laying down the law. He’s demonstrating, exhaustively, that property tax cuts will not pass the House this session—if there was any doubt about it before. (There shouldn’t have been, but some on the Senate side have been a bit slow on the uptake lately.)

In committee Tuesday, he emphasized something else: If the tax impasse results in a special session, the Legislature should be ashamed.

“I think there’s absolutely no excuse and we should all be embarrassed if we’re in a special session,” he said. “There’s no reason.”


So to sum up, the two chambers are having an ego contest over two poorly constructed and faulty tax cut packages. Privately, most reps don’t really care about the House plan, and most senators don’t care about the Senate plan. Neither is enthusiastic about the policy particulars involved. But because neither wants to let the other “win,” we’re headed toward either a pointless special session in which both sides still can’t “win,” or a third option, Bonnen’s proposed compromise, that’s even worse. Take pride, ladies and gentlemen, in your 84th Legislature.

Update: More from RG Ratcliffe and Erica Grieder.

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