May 30, 2011

Senate gives up on budget deal; special session looms

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says legislators will begin a special session Tuesday after Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth derailed a must-pass revenue measure Sunday night.

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AUSTIN - Lawmakers have given up hope of reaching a budget deal by midnight tonight, making it a foregone conclusion that a special legislative session will begin Tuesday.

Democrats in the Texas Senate have refused to vote for a school finance bill. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said that despite his best efforts, he couldn't get enough votes to pass the bill. He said the senate would return on Tuesday for a special session.

"As hard as I've tried we have not been able to get aan agreemment to supsend the rules so we wil be back tomorrow morning," Dewhurst said.

The beginning of the end came late Sunday when Sen.Wendy Davis of Fort Worth "raised a hurdle" with her filibuster against a must-pass revenue measure, Gov. Rick Perry said Monday morning.

In what was believed to be one of the shortest filibusters in Senate history, the Democratic senator brought down a critical measure needed to carry out $4 billion in education cuts. Senators were expected to vote later Monday to decide whether to resurrect the bill but would need to get a fourth-fifths majority, 25 of 31 votes.

As Dewhurst indicated, Perry is likely to call an immediate session on Tuesday.

In a barbed response to Davis' actions after a bill-signing ceremony, the Republican governor earlier Monday had insisted that lawmakers still had "time to get the work done (Monday)."

"She raised a hurdle. That's her call," Perry said. "And I'm sure members of the Legislature that will be back here in a special session will have appropriate things to say to her for that.

"We come here to work. We don't come here to be show horses or to do anything other than to get the will of the people done and I think the members of the Senate understand that," he added.

Davis, a former Fort Worth City Council member who entered the Senate in January 2009, began the filibuster at 10:45 p.m. Sunday. She needed to talk until midnight to block action on a $2.5 billion nontax revenue measure necessary to balance a $172.3 billion budget lawmakers passed a day earlier. Included in the measure was a critical school finance component to distribute reduced funding to the state's school districts.

Dewhurst warned that the action "puts the budget in crisis" and could prevent the state's health and human services commissioner from certifying reimbursement rates for health care providers on June 1. "The State of Texas loses hundreds of millions of dollars because of this decision by one or more senators," Dewhurst said Sunday night.

But Davis' Democratic colleges rallied behind her and applauded for her "courage and determination" in bringing down a bill widely opposed by Democrats.

"Sen. Davis is standing up for her schools and the schoolchildren of this state, and I stand with her," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Democrats from both chambers planned a press conference later Monday to respond to Davis' "Filibuster to Save Schools" and outline their goals for funding education.

Late-night drama

Rumors had circulated that throughout the day Sunday that Davis had planned to filibuster against the bill, but the Fort Worth senator declined to confirm the reports and avoided contact with reporters.

But shortly after the Texas House passed SB1811, Davis rose to begin assailing the bill, saying it would mark the first time in state history that Texas has failed to fund student population growth.

She also read letters from constituents questioning the cuts and urging lawmakers to dip into the state's Rainy Day Fund to help finance education.

"We are going to permanently reduce funding to public schools in Texas," she said, clutching a microphone as she stood near her desk at the front of the chamber. "I don't think there is anything to celebrate in that."

The filibuster came to an end at 12:03 a.m., after Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, asked the time. Senators cannot consider bills on the final day of the Legislature unless they suspend the rules by a four-fifths vote.

"Those in charge have made irresponsible choices in allowing special interests to preserve taxpayer funded loopholes, while telling educators, students and working families that we can't afford to educate Texans," Davis said at a news conference afterward.

Filibuster history

Although Davis' filibuster of one hour and 15 minutes was nowhere close to some of the Legislature's epic filibusters, it wasn't the shortest, either. Several have been in the hour range, and one by Sen. Chet Brooks of Pasadena in 1985 lasted only 30 to 45 minutes, according to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas.

One the other end of the spectrum, the record for the longest filibuster is held by Bill Meier, who as a senator from Euless, talked for 43 hours in 1977 against a bill that eventually passed anyway. Meier is now a justice on the Fort Worth-based Second Court of Appeals.

Another state senator from Tarrant County - Don Kennard of Fort Worth, who died this year - holds the record for the third longest filibuster at 29 hours and 22 minutes in 1971.

Staff writer Aman Batheja contributed to this report.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-476-4294

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