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Though a minority, Democrats prevail on school funds

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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From Day One of the 2013 Legislature, outnumbered Democrats repeatedly committed themselves to an overarching goal: restoring billions of dollars in education cuts imposed by lawmakers two years ago.

Now, with just over a week left in the 140-day session, Democrats appear to be within reach of a legislative triumph after negotiating a proposed budget accord that reverses most of the public school reductions from 2011.

The spending plan, which still requires approval in both chambers of the Republican-led Legislature, calls for $3.9 billion in increased education funding, including $3.4 billion for public schools and the remainder for teacher retirement.

Though the amount falls short of a complete restoration of the $5.4 billion in total education cuts in 2011, Democrats proclaimed the compromise as a hard-fought victory after weeks of negotiations. The Burnt Orange Report, a Democratic blog, hailed Friday’s deal as a “huge win” for the Legislature’s Democrats.

The budget proposal also paves the way for $2 billion for long-range water needs and at least $1 billion in tax and fee reductions. Gov. Rick Perry, who has threatened a special session if lawmakers don’t meet his demands on water, transportation and tax relief, is publicly reserving judgement on the spending plan.

Democratic leaders credit their success on education to unbendable party unity that helped offset their minority status in both chambers. They forced concessions by exerting just enough leverage to block high-priority initiatives that require a two-thirds majority.

“They always say the Democrats represent a lot of different voices and faces under a big tent but we’re of a singular mindset in terms of our goals and objectives,’” said Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, a 24-year lawmaker who was the House Democrats’ lead negotiator in the budget talks. “It’s been a long time since I have seen us as united as we have been in this legislative session.”

“Our resolve is very strong,” he told the Star-Telegram.

The education achievements constitute an about-face from the 2011 session, when Republicans commanded a 102-48 vote supermajority in the House. Democrats were powerless to stop a conservative agenda that included hot-button issues such as voter identification and redistricting, as well as budget cuts in education and other services.

Democrats rebounded slightly in the November elections, narrowing the partisan ratio in the House to 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats. The makeup in the Senate is 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, the same as 2011.

Although Democrats are still outnumbered, the election pickups in the House gave them enough muscle to deny needed votes on a water funding bill in April that required a two-thirds vote to draw money out of the rainy-day fund.

Democrats, who ultimately killed the bill on a point of order, said they supported efforts to expand Texas water supplies but refused to budge until they extracted more money for education.

“Anytime you’re able to kind of slow down the budget process and create questions about what’s going on, you’ve inserted yourself in a powerful way,” Austin lobbyist-consultant Bill Miller said. “By the definition of legislative behavior, that’s pretty strong.”

GOP divisions

Democrats also benefited from divisions among Republicans. On the water bill, for instance, Tea Party Republicans rebelled against tapping into the rainy-day fund and were fearful that the expenditure could exceed a constitutional spending cap.

“I think they’ve been very successful as a minority party,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Tea Party-backed Republican from Bedford. “We haven’t had any pro-life legislation, we haven’t had any immigration legislation, and we’ve spent a whole bunch of money. So I think they would count that as a victory.

“What Democrats have done best is identify liberal Republicans and have gotten them on board with a bunch of their agenda,” Stickland said. He added, “Don’t ask me to name names.”

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, dean of the Tarrant County House delegation after 16 years in the Legislature, acknowledges that Democrats are often known for voting “their own personal quirks and preferences.”

But he said Democrats were “hanging tough” in support of restoring education money this year after constituents signaled their dismay over public school cuts in the 2012 elections.

The push for more education money spanned both chambers, uniting House and Senate Democrats in a common cause.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who filibustered against the 2011 education cuts, made the issue a top priority again this year. She cast one of two dissenting Democratic votes against a Senate-passed budget in March, saying the $195.5 measure didn’t adequately fund public schools.

Democrats in both chambers have consistently kept “in touch with each other” and tried to “work strategically” to press for increased education funding, Davis said.

Additionally, she said, Democrats in the House were “more muscular” this year because “the House Republicans aren’t as unified as they once were.”

“Both chambers are working to try to get us as close to where we were prior to the budget cuts of last session,” she said of House and Senate Democrats.

Budget battle

The $3.9 billion in the compromise budget was the final bottom-line demand from Democrats, representing a sharp climb from a proposed $1.5 billion education funding increase in an early Senate proposal.

Republican leaders also cited education as a top priority, but sharp differences over the total spending level provoked rising tensions in the Capitol.

Democrats, at one point, accused the Republican leadership of reneging on agreements. Gov. Rick Perry, in turn, declared that “that there are folks that would like to blow up the session just to see the pieces of the machinery blow up through the air.”

House Democrats operated under a leadership team headed by two Metroplex lawmakers.

Dallas Rep. Yvonne Davis was elected as the top Democrat and Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie was named caucus chairman, the No. 2 spot.

Turner, a political consultant who served in the 2009 Legislature, is in his second term in the House after rebounding in the 2012 elections.

Burnam also plays a prominent role for Democrats as co-chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which was credited with the 2012 election gains that broke the Republicans’ supermajority in the House.

Turner said Democrats support infrastructure improvements such as water and transportation but not at the expense of inadequately funding education.

“We’re taking the approach that all these things need to be resolved together – not in a vacuum by themselves,” he said. “Even though we’re outnumbered, we’ve been unified and that’s the most important thing. If you’re unified you can accomplish a lot.”

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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