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Star-Telegram.com

Texas House gives final approval to school finance bill

Posted Saturday, Jun. 11, 2011

By Dave Montgomery

dmontgomery@star-telegram.com

AUSTIN -- The Republican-led Texas House on Friday gave final approval to a revenue and school-finance measure that would implement a $4 billion reduction in the state contribution to public schools even as lawmakers in both parties registered concern about the impact on their local school districts.

Although the bill is a top priority for the Legislature's Republican leadership, 14 of the House's 101 Republicans -- including Rep. Vicki Truitt of Keller -- joined 48 unified Democrats in voting against the bill.

The measure, considered the dominant issue in the Legislature's nearly 2-week-old special session, cleared the House 83-62 and now heads to the Senate. A final version of the bill will likely be crafted by a House-Senate conference committee.

The dissenting Republicans were a mix of representatives in high-growth suburbs and rural lawmakers who said they were concerned about the sizeable funding disparities between school systems in their districts.

"It was all about the schools," said Truitt, the only Tarrant County Republican representative to vote against the measure. "I just thought the cuts to my districts were greater than I felt good about supporting."

School districts in Tarrant County would lose $260 million over the next two years. The Fort Worth district would lose nearly $40 million. Arlington and Keller would each lose about $28.9 million.

The school package employs a hybrid approach that calls for across-the-board reductions the first year of the 2012-13 biennium and adjustments in target revenue funding the second year. Truitt said schools in her District 98 would be hit particularly hard the second year.

In the Carroll school district, the reduction would go from 6.2 percent to 8.8 percent over the biennium, Truitt said. The Grapevine-Colleyville school district faces a 5.9 percent reduction in 2012 and 8.6 percent in 2013.

'Not that big a cut'

Democrats said the bill would erode the quality of education and force layoffs and program reductions in the state's more than 1,000 school districts. But House Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said spending on schools will increase over the current biennium, although overall spending is down because of the loss of federal stimulus money.

Eissler said the net decrease to school districts would average 4 to 5 percent, which he said is "not that big a cut." Some districts may have "overprepared" for the reductions after initial budget drafts called for considerably deeper cuts, he said.

"I think there's a sense of relief because there was a greater fear of the unknown," Eissler said.

How much state money a school district receives is based on a formula that froze total per-student spending at 2006 levels. Lawmakers lowered property taxes and promised to make up the difference by instituting a business tax.

But that tax has never generated the amount expected, creating deficits every year.

Rather than change the tax code, Republican lawmakers changed the school finance law to spend less.

Eissler said lawmakers will spend the legislative break until 2013 working on a long-term solution to school funding.

Rainy-day fund

In one key development Friday, Democrats, with help from some Republicans, preserved an amendment that would allow surplus money from the state's rainy-day fund, officially the Economic Stabilization Fund, to be used to help school districts deal with enrollment growth and soften the impact of the funding cuts.

The amendment, by Reps. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, was placed on a related appropriations bill the previous day with little discussion. But conservatives led by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, sought unsuccessfully to strip the amendment from the bill as it came up for final consideration on Friday.

"It just slipped by," King said. "A lot of us didn't realize what it did until it was too late."

State Comptroller Susan Combs has said the rainy-day fund will contain about $6.5 billion after a $3.1 billion withdrawal that the Legislature has authorized to help the state overcome the current deficit. The reserve pool is supported by state oil and gas revenue.

Under the Howard-Farrar amendment, any surplus in the fund above $6.5 billion would be applied to the Foundation School Program to help districts cover the costs of enrollment growth and compensate for the reduced state assistance. Rising energy prices have prompted speculation that the rainy-day fund will swell beyond Combs' original projection.

King offered an amendment to repeal the provision but mustered a 79-65 vote -- short of the needed two-thirds, or 100-vote, supermajority.

Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, who chairs the House Committee on Redistricting, joined Howard and Farrar in urging lawmakers to oppose King's effort. He said a number of urban school districts are facing "enormous enrollment growth that we need to deal with in some form or fashion."

Rep. Lanham Lyne, R-Wichita Falls, told Howard that the amendment is "a great idea," saying, "I hate to think we would take this off."

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who waged a filibuster against the revenue-school aid package during the regular session that ended May 30, applauded the outcome as a bipartisan victory and expressed hope that the Howard-Farrar amendment will remain in the bill as it goes through conference committee.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

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