The Budget Implosion
School finance runs aground, but health spending will follow soon
By Richard Whittaker, 4:50PM, Tue. May. 24, 2011
Does anyone really know what's happening with school finance reform? Quick answer, no, but if there is no resolution by the end of today, the quick answer may be "special session."
Yesterday may become known as the day the 82nd Legislature imploded: After a late start, and hours wending through resolutions, then a stack of Local and Consent bills, the House got caught up in House Bill 1717, the judicial matters bill. Now this was supposed to be an appetizer before the brutal slog through Senate Bill 1581, which was supposed to be the formula funding and school finance revision bill. Then HB 1717 became what is known as a Christmas Tree, when every lawmaker with a bill that had timed out tries to latch it on like a Christmas ornament. The ever-lengthening debate threatened to swallow the whole evening as amendment after amendment got added on or lopped off. However, that delay could not obscure the fact that there was no sign of SB 1581.
On the House floor, everyone knew something was wrong: Debate got pushed back from 2pm to 5 to 8 and there was still no sign of anything happening. House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, Calendars Chair Todd Hunter and Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden were seen in the back corridor not standing near each other.
Around 10pm, Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, R-Killeen, dropped the bomb. Stepping up to the front mic, he already knew that Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, had a point of order that would kill the bill stone dead, but he made a short speech anyway. He told the House, "It's a little like, for those of you old enough to remember, the Hanoi helicopters that were coming in and everyone was ganging on board. Well, you got on board pretty good today, you did good, but the helicopter's not going to leave."
The point was clear: No-one is evacuating the building any time soon. No SB 1581, no school finance structure. No school finance structure, no budget. No budget, a special session may be inevitable and the whole school system is thrown into carnage as districts wait even longer to see how badly served they will be.
The problem is simple. There are three plans floating around. The numbers on Eissler's proposal looks best on paper for many districts, since he just wants a 6% across-the-board cut for everyone. However, there are concerns that it opens up a way for the legislature to permanently and structurally underfund schools, above and beyond the current budget disaster. Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has her own numbers, but some argue they protect property-rich districts too much, and again there are fears about it becoming a permanent cut: Last week, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, wrote that formula funding plans then contained in SB 22 "would permanently underfund education and would allow lawmakers to wash their hands of the state's responsibility to fund education at the levels promised in 2006." Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, has his own plan, but many worry it is too damaging to districts like Austin that are high-needs but also have high property values. His plan seems like the deadest of the dead, so he may be reduced to a Cassandra-like role of predicting how badly everything else will go.
Those choices have been complicated by what are called "the runs." Those are district-by-district computations, showing how each different plan hits each ISD. Aycock said he had spent the last few days going from office to office and "In one of those discussions, someone told me that the issue is so complex that members don't have but one choice: That that choice is to look at the runs and how it." The inevitable dog-fights over whose district bleeds least just became another cause of confusions and impasse.
On top of that is the constant call from within and without the chamber to tap the Rainy Day fund. However, according to Eissler, that money is already spent. While everyone is concentrating on school spending, he called the Health and Human Services budget "the real story of this budget and the next one." As protestors from disability rights advocates ADAPT were chanting loudly in front of the House chamber last night, the current budget proposal is $5 billion short of Medicaid funding, but there are rumblings that the state will be obligated to spend that money anyway. As Eissler noted on Saturday (after running a similar gauntlet of education advocated from Save Texas Schools) "People want us to spend the Rainy Day Fund on education, thinking we have four or five billion dollars left. Well, come next May we won't have that left."
Then there is the controversy about all the amendments intended to turn SB 1581 into another Christmas tree. Measures like unpaid furloughs are unpopular in many areas. So while Eissler has been telling reporters that he has several Democrats on board, other Democrats are suggesting that only means he does not have enough Republicans on-board.
Word is that Shapiro will be attempting to crowbar some sense of consensus into both chambers today, in an attempt to salvage at least formula funding changes and bolt them on to SB 1811. That is already in conference committee, and to add these education issues will take an additional vote to take it out of bounds (that's jargonese for, "Yeah, we know this bill is about X, but we're adding Y in there.") However, since the House and Senate were too divided to agree on terms when they were looking at SB 1581, it could be a stretch to think they'll cave just because they have a different bill number attached.
Aycock summed up the mood of many when he said, "At some point, I hope this body will find good policy, and not just runs." However, that seems unlikely this session. His hope was that lawmakers would read up on school finance over the next two years, and come back in 2013 with a better grasp of the issues. But if there is no stop-gap pulled together via SB 1811 before the session ends on May 30, they may have to take a crammer course before a special session.