The Austin Chronicle

School Finance Bill Heads for the Floor

By Kimberly Reeves, March 4, 2005, News

The House Public Education Committee, dominated by Republicans, pushed the school finance reform bill out of committee on Tuesday, forcing a straight party-line vote on a bill that no group in the education community was willing to support.

That's the comfortable, predictable story everyone expects to read. Those evil, dastardly, heartless Republicans, hell-bent on world domination and knowing they could crush any opposition, railroaded the Democrats and the education community into a bill that no one liked. It's the kind of story that has been told dozens, maybe hundreds, of times at the Capitol since the Republicans took the reins in both the House and the Senate.

But wait and listen carefully to Tuesday's talk. Could it be that Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, has softened his hard-charging, take-no-prisoners tactics a bit and thanked people who were so clearly about to oppose him? And as the reporters gathered around Vice Chair Rene Oliveira to talk about his vote against House Bill 2, was that a glimmer of regret in the Brownsville Democrat's eyes? Sure, it was slight, but, yes, there it was, a hint of real sadness in Oliveira's comments.

"What I tell my colleagues is, 'Don't be thinking about the fact that we are not getting funding, be thinking about the future of Texas,'" Oliveira told reporters. "Those children are going to be the future workforce of Texas, and they are going to be poorer, less educated, and less prepared to deal with the future economy of Texas."

They have a phrase for what Oliveira offered reporters after the House Public Education Committee vote on HB 2. They call it "genuine philosophical differences." Democrats truly, and sincerely, cannot support a school finance bill without significant additional funding. And Grusendorf told everyone involved that privately he was willing to compromise on almost any aspect of the bill, except for the funding. This was a stalemate waiting to happen. But in this case, a stalemate is an improvement on past performance, which would have been a shutout.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that sincere differences – with some amount of respect for the other side – ever existed at this Capitol, a post-Ardmore world so dominated by arm-twisting and vote-counting on each and every bill. Witness the debacle of HB 1 during the last special session, also authored by Grusendorf. The bill was walked through committee with little or no input from Democrats. When it became clear the Dems intended to use floor maneuvering to make their voices heard on the revenue measures, Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland, yanked the bill from discussion and marched Republicans to a back room where each was browbeaten until he or she screamed "uncle" and punched the right button. It was not a pleasant sight for either side.

No one appeared gleeful, or even relieved, at this split vote on the school finance reform bill. Oliveira told reporters he considered HB 2 to be a bill that puts property tax relief, rather than school funding, first. Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, voiced similar concerns. And Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, always the most cerebral of the committee's members, still has serious issues with the property-tax bills, seeing the rollback as simply exchanging a de facto statewide property tax of $1.50 for a de facto statewide property tax of $1.

The battle lines for HB 2 are easy to simplify: Conservatives love it because it adds more controls and little funding. It signifies, as they say, "more dollars for education and more education for those dollars." That's a view shared by the Republican leadership. And the education community can't sign off on the bill because it's still unclear that the $3.2 billion in new money will do anything more than cover the mandates prescribed by the bill. This is more than school leaders crying wolf. In some cases, superintendents say the numbers show they would be cutting again by the end of the biennium under HB 2, hardly the "long-term fix" for education funding promised by the Republicans.

Grusendorf warned the bill's opponents sternly, and rather frequently, during hearings that the $3 billion on the table was an "all or nothing" proposition. If the education community didn't want it, other budget areas were ready to take it. In some cases, the response was that the cost and hassle of the bill far outweighed its benefits.

Consultant Lynn Moak, who spoke to the committee on Tuesday, estimated that more than $2 billion of the new money would be eaten up by mandates required under HB 2. About $400 million would go to textbooks. Another $1.2 billion would go to teacher benefits. Subtract the requirements for mentoring programs and the now-unfunded $500 in health care benefits for paraprofessionals on campus, and it's unlikely much new money for discretionary spending will be left over at the end of the day.

Unlike the HB 1 of days yore, Democrats did have a role in HB 2. Sure, Grusendorf made sure he still had the ultimate say on which amendments – euphemistically called "proposals" – were rolled into HB 2. But early in the process, Grusendorf handed over the formula issues to a subcommittee headed by Hochberg, the first real olive branch between Republicans and Democrats on the committee. And he accepted many of Hochberg's proposals, formula-related or not.

And on Tuesday Grusendorf made another big sacrifice – agreeing to consider bouncing the 35% cap on recapture that made Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the bill's best friend. This is tantamount to saying the concerns of property-poor districts were just as important as the concerns of property-wealthy ones, an acknowledgement most Democratic observers said would never happen.

Branch, who represents Highland Park ISD, agreed to capitulate. The committee agreed to some limits. It was a fascinating discussion to watch because so many Dems and equity advocates have insisted the wealthy suburban school districts were the real power behind most of the big ideas on school finance. Entertaining such a motion – which clearly made powerful committee members unhappy – limited a huge liability in the bill, but also indicated a willingness to meet in the middle.

Partisanship is not out of the picture. Oliveira did call HB 2 a "Republican primary bill" intended to make officeholders look good rather than addressing the real needs of education. He also acknowledged that Democrats are working a full floor substitute for HB 2, one that is likely to provide more funding for education. HB 2, aka "Roadmap to Results," is likely to go to the floor on Monday, to be followed shortly after by Rep. Jim Keffer's, R-Eastland, property tax relief bill, HB 3.

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