Water and education are both valid uses of the Texas rainy-day fund

Posted Saturday, May. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Friday’s column by Star-Telegram Editorial Director Mike Norman was correct: There is a “high-stakes standoff” over water funding in the Texas House.

But the stakes are just as high for the future of public education, and it is incorrect to suggest that Democratic legislators are the obstructionists in the drama.

Yes, House Democrats used a procedural point to strike down House Bill 11, a critical piece of legislation that would have spent $2 billion of the state’s rainy-day fund as seed money for water infrastructure projects.

Democrats blocked the water bill because they were unable to amend it to also spend rainy-day funds to help fully restore the $5.4 billion in state aid cut from public schools two years ago.

Norman expressed a viewpoint similar to what Republican leaders in Austin have been saying, that the rainy-day fund — despite a record $12 billion balance — shouldn’t be used for recurring expenses such as public education. But the constitutional amendment that created the fund, which Texas voters approved in 1988, included no prohibition against recurring expenses.

The Legislature — under both Democratic and Republican control — has spent rainy-day money to help meet recurring expenses on several occasions, including public schools in 1991, retired teacher healthcare in 2003 and Child Protective Services in 2005.

The Legislature in 2003 and 2005 even tapped into the savings account to help fund two of Gov. Rick Perry’s pet projects, the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund, from which millions of tax dollars have been doled out to private businesses.

Perry insists that both those funds, although controversial, are important to the state’s economic development efforts. Are our public schools any less important?

Education is one of the most important recurring expenses that Texas has, but repairing the damage that the 2011 budget cuts inflicted on schools would be a one-time expenditure to fill a budgetary hole.

If that hole isn’t completely plugged now, public schools will have recurring budgetary shortfalls and students will continue to suffer from overcrowded classrooms and diminished learning opportunities. That is because the spending cuts left enrollment growth during the past two years — about 170,000 students — uncovered.

The state is appealing a judge’s ruling that the school funding system is inequitable and woefully inadequate. Depending on how the Texas Supreme Court responds, the next session of the Legislature may have to overhaul the school finance system.

In the meantime, though, the Legislature shouldn’t deny schools a full restoration of the lost funding.

So far, neither the House nor the Senate has come close to doing that. The House has approved budget bills that would pay for future enrollment growth but restore only $3 billion of the $5.4 billion cut two years ago.

The Senate version of the main budget bill would restore only $1.5 billion, although senators also have voted for a constitutional amendment that would provide another $800 million and promised to use $1.4 billion from growth in local property wealth to bolster school funding.

A bipartisan poll commissioned earlier this session by the Texas State Teachers Association showed that 66 percent of Texas voters believe the rainy-day fund should be used to restore public education funding.

The governor and many legislators want to hoard the rainy-day fund to curry favor with people who refuse to acknowledge that public programs, services and infrastructure for a fast-growing state require a wise investment of public dollars.

The rainy-day fund belongs to Texas taxpayers. It is their money, and legislators have a responsibility to invest that money in projects and programs — such as water and education — that the vast majority of Texans know will build a strong future for their state.

Rita Haecker is president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

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