Dems Almost Steal School Finance Thunder

Underdogs' ambitious education package carried the support of a dozen Republicans and every House Democrat

Dems Almost Steal School Finance Thunder
Illustration By Doug Potter

House Democrats came within a whisker of seizing control of the school finance debate this week, but a tie-breaking vote foiled what could have been an embarrassing defeat for the GOP leadership.

With Speaker Tom Craddick casting the deciding vote, Democrats saw the collapse of an ambitious education package that carried the support of a dozen Republicans and every House Democrat. Despite the loss, the 75-74 squeaker spoke more favorably of the Democrats' proposal than it did of the Republicans' revised House Bill 2, a remake of a measure that narrowly won House passage in the regular session before stalling out during final negotiations with the Senate. The tie vote on the Democrats' plan echoed similar close votes on major bills during the regular session, when the House saw its first signs of bipartisanship since Republicans gained a majority in 2002.

But Republicans eventually prevailed late Tuesday night, passing HB 2 on a 77-69 vote. Before the vote, state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, argued for delaying action until the state Supreme Court rules on school finance. The court will hear arguments next Wednesday. Turner also urged representatives to stop ignoring the opinions of school superintendents and teachers – a large majority of whom oppose HB 2.

The debate opened with Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, offering the Democrats' plan as an amendment to HB 2. Under Hochberg's proposal, the state's homestead exemption would increase to $45,000, teachers would see a $3,200 salary hike over two years, and three out of every four school districts would reap more funding. Democrats also proposed reducing the maximum tax rate from $1.50 to $1.25 per $100 valuation. HB 2, on the other hand, would lower the cap to $1.10.

"This is simple," Hochberg told House members, following with an equally simple explanation of what the bill would provide: "More money for your schools [and] more money for your homeowners."

A key component of the Democrats' plan – the homestead exemption increase – fell by the wayside after Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, pointed out a technical error. But Hochberg didn't appear terribly worried because the measure had also been filed as a separate bill, since the change would require a constitutional amendment. In a press briefing Tuesday morning, Hochberg said House Republicans have recently warmed to the idea of providing tax relief through homestead exemptions, now that Gov. Rick Perry has included a modest increase in his own school finance proposal. "Even the governor has recognized the value of the homestead," Hochberg said.

Republicans, however, remained skeptical of a proposal they said was too good to be true. And Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, predicted the cost of the plan would eventually force legislators to raise taxes. Republicans face the same challenge under HB 2. The bill's lifeline – a separate measure that would increase taxes to pay for lower property taxes – was headed for a committee vote at press time

Wednesday, with a House vote expected Tuesday or Wednesday.

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