Texas Dems hold water money hostage for school funding

Posted Friday, May. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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norman It’s real simple, Gov. Rick Perry said this week.

If legislators want to avoid returning for a special session in the heat and swelter of Austin this summer, they must pass $1.8 billion in tax cuts and $2 billion in funding for water infrastructure before their current session ends on Memorial Day, May 27.

Watch out for that second part. Water funding plans have hit a wall in the House, not because members don’t want to approve them but because those plans are being held hostage in a high-stakes standoff.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, and I have a simmering disagreement over the House’s failure to finance a 50-year water plan. Burnam and other Democrats say they won’t give up water funding until they get school funding in trade.

The tax cut Perry wants might be within reach. The House and Senate both have passed tax reduction bills, although both have a way to go to reach the governor’s $1.8 billion goal.

The latest installment came Wednesday night when the House approved $667 million in franchise tax cuts.

It’s hard to tell yet whether what’s been passed already and what might be added to it are the right tax cuts in Perry’s eyes. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says the Senate shares the governor’s enthusiasm for tax cuts but may not do it in exactly the way or amount he wants.

Perry was pretty definite on Wednesday.

“It should be no surprise that if folks want to go home at the end of this legislative session, send me $1.8 billion worth of tax relief,” he said. “Send me a balanced budget that has no fee increases for transportation and $2 billion for infrastructure for water, and everyone can go home and enjoy their summer.”

The money for water infrastructure and more is available in the state’s almost $12 billion rainy-day fund. The idea is to put that much in a revolving fund to help entities across the state sell bonds for water projects. Burnam and others are blocking the way.

“House Democrats believe Texas should first restore the $5.4 billion cut from public education before spending money from the Rainy Day Fund for other issues,” Burnam and Rep. Chris Turner wrote in a letter to the editor published last week. “And since a drawdown from the Rainy Day Fund requires the support of two-thirds of the House, the minority party has more leverage than usual — and we intend to use that leverage to help our schoolchildren.”

I say the Dems are wrong. I don’t blame them for their tactics, but it’s not smart to use rainy-day fund money to pay for ongoing operation of schools.

Rainy-day money should be used either in a crisis or in one-time allocations to pay for things that won’t have to be paid for over and over again. If it’s used to help restore the $5.4 billion cut from schools two years ago, that same hole will have to be filled again when the Legislature meets in 2015, and again in 2017, and again in 2019, and so forth.

Burnam and others have told me it’s worth the risk that they’ll be able to come back in two years and find more stable funding. I don’t buy that.

Texas has the money this year to adequately and properly fund schools. If lawmakers choose not to do that, or if their definition of adequate funding differs from what educators or others might say, that’s their responsibility.

But it shouldn’t come from the rainy-day fund, and it shouldn’t block passage of the proposed one-time funding for water infrastructure.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9

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