May 16, 2011

Education funding may force special session of state Legislature

With two weeks left in the regular session, state lawmakers are also facing a tight schedule on redistricting.

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AUSTIN -- Key lawmakers acknowledged the growing possibility of a midsummer special session Monday as the House and Senate remained at odds over education funding, even as budget negotiators signed off on the lion's share of a two-year state spending plan.

With two weeks left in their 140-day regular session, key lawmakers are scrambling to break an impasse over a school finance bill and close the gap between the House and Senate on how to much to spend on public schools and universities. Also urgently awaiting action is a must-pass "nontax" revenue measure.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, repeated predictions Monday that a special session seems inevitable, saying that the House and Senate are "pretty far apart" on education. The Senate proposes spending $4 billion more than the House on public education and about $1 billion more for higher education.

Asked if he foresees a special session, Ogden said, "I've been saying that for a week."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told reporters that he remains optimistic that lawmakers can complete their work by May 30 but said a special session may be necessary "if we don't get this resolved in the next couple of days."

In addition to lingering differences over the budget, lawmakers also have made little progress on a congressional redistricting plan and may be running out of time to get the job done before the adjournment.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, acknowledged that lawmakers face a "very tight schedule" to get a plan approved. Lawmakers must draw four new congressional districts because of state population growth in addition to redrawing boundaries for existing districts.

The most widely discussed likely start date for a special session is July 11.

Gov. Rick Perry, who would call the 30-day special session, has repeatedly challenged lawmakers to get their work done in the 140-day regular session.

"The governor is focused on this session, and it's premature to talk about a special session," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner.

"I don't see any good from a special session," said Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, one of the budget negotiators for the House. "We have a hard job to do, and we need to do it now."

With the exception of education, which accounts for about 50 percent of state spending, members of a House-Senate conference committee worked Monday night to approve most of the other components of a lean state spending plan to run state government for the 2012-13 biennium.

The compromise budget represents a middle ground between a $164.5 billion House budget and the Senate's $176.5 billion, but a bottom line won't be available until the negotiators sign off on funding for education. Cuts in public school and university funding are inevitable, although the Senate's plan softened the proposed reduction in education.

Pitts said the health and human services provisions in the budget will protect nursing homes from widespread closures, which had been feared in earlier versions of the budget.

House and Senate negotiators are expected to consider education funding today. Crafting a budget has been job one since lawmakers convened in January facing a budget shortfall of up to $27 billion.

In a related development Monday, the Senate approved a $3.9 billion drawdown from the state's rainy-day fund to patch a deficit for the current biennium. The House earlier approved $3.1 billion from the rainy-day fund, but senators added about $800 million more, which would free up money for the next biennium.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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