The Austin Chronicle

School Finance Agreement? Maybe

By Richard Whittaker, May 27, 2011, 8:29pm, Newsdesk

Most times, when you're tracking a bill in the Lege, you follow the sponsoring lawmakers. Today the eyes were on House Speaker Chief of Staff Denise Davis*, because wherever she was going was where the school finance deal was being brokered. Now there may be a conference committee deal struck on Senate Bill 1811, but it still needs to pass both chambers.

Talk about down-to-the-wire. The drop-dead deadline was, according to Calendars Committee Chair Charlie Geren, 5pm. Then House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, upgraded that to 5.30pm. Truth was, the House and Senate conference committee appointees were still stuck in a meeting in the lieutenant governor's room. After a few appearances and a lot of fussing, they finally emerged to say yes, they believe they have a deal they can get to the printers before the 9pm calendar cut-off.

What is on offer is a weird hodge-podge of the Senate version (which the House hated) and the House version (which the Senate hated.) The details are still to be made publicly available, but the quick boil down is half of one, half of the other. Rather than a true hybrid, this is a chimera: It basically takes the 6% across-the-board cut from the House for the 2011-12 school year, then shifts to the funding formula revisions from the Senate for 2012-13.

The expectation had been for a hybrid model, but this mid-course switch is a new twist. Sen. Leticia van de Putte, D-San Antonio, was part of the conference committee and said that the idea first came up during Wednesday's debate. The plan in the 2013-14 school year is to start phasing out the complicated target revenue fund, and put the cash straight into baseline funding. However, she remains furious that no serious attempt was made to find fresh funding, and so the task was always about spreading the per-student cuts.

If either the House or Senate says no, then the bill goes down and the legislature is back in the Summer to fix it (importantly, they will already almost definitely be back anyway for Texas Windstorm Insurance Association reform, which died a death already.)

The perils are many. Neither the House nor the Senate has ever actually passed their own school finance proposals, so the first question will be about what exactly the conference committee is compromising on. There are also many reps, especially in poor and rural districts, that are terrified about how badly the ISDs in their districts will get hit. The Democrats are furious because, for all the claims that they would be involved in the negotiations, keeping the Rainy Day Fund off the table sidelined their biggest demand. Then there are the real questions about how where the system would go in 2013, especially since every school district's baseline funding will be lower than ever in that second year.

Yeah, don't forget that: This is all just about the Legislature cutting its responsibilities and obligations to schools. That could be enough to get the GOP on-board. As Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said when asked whether it would pass, he said, "Yup. 100 to 49." *Corrected from earlier reference to "House Parliamentarian"; Davis became Chief of Staff to Speaker Joe Straus at the beginning of the session

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