After a bizarre, yet thrilling, set of circumstances turned the special session on its ear Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry ordered lawmakers back to the torture chamber today (Thursday) to try to salvage a school finance plan, along with the governor's political reputation.
The House, in a spectacular chain of maneuvers, effectively gave Perry the finger Tuesday, killing the school spending and tax bills in back-to-back assassinations. The actions created a rare taste of victory for the Democrats and bore out further doubt about the GOP leadership's ability to lead. More importantly, the events demonstrated a bipartisan agreement on school finance that runs counter to the wishes of Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick and, to some extent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
"It's sort of been a surreal day," said Ways and Means Committee Chair Jim Keffer before taking the lead in slaughtering the tax bill that he had reluctantly carried on behalf of Perry. "Mr. Speaker," he said grimly, "show me voting 'no' on House Bill 3." A whoop of joy went up from the floor. With that, 123 representatives joined Keffer in defeating his own bill.
The torching followed within minutes of the House's rejection of the school spending plan, House Bill 2. But not before Democrats scored big with the adoption of an alternative plan crafted by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. HB 2 author and Public Ed Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, urged legislators to turn down the Hochberg proposal because, he said, it would shift the tax burden to businesses. "It would have a bad effect on the economy," Grusendorf warned. "It would cost our state jobs." The House responded with an endorsement of the Hochberg amendment by a wide vote margin. Surprisingly, Republican leader Jim Pitts, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, also voted for the Hochberg amendment.
The ball is now in the Senate's court. Here in the upper chamber, school finance started off on wobbly footing, leaving Senate leaders no choice but to scrap a scheduled Monday vote on HB 2 and possibly try again today. Leaders spent the rest of Monday huddling privately with senators to hear their concerns on the bill they were expected to pass last Wednesday, the final day of the special session, during an 11th hour rush to wrap things up before midnight. That's what Perry had hoped for, anyway.
Instead, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, foiled those plans with a filibuster lasting several hours. Still, it's doubtful HB 2 would have sailed through if given the chance, despite Lt. Gov. Dewhurst's after-the-fact claim that he had the votes to pass it out of the Senate. If that were true then, it wasn't true early this week. The prevailing gripe among Democratic and Republican senators alike follows what Whitmire pointed out many times during his filibuster that they didn't appreciate being coerced into voting for a compromise plan that they were given little time to digest and discuss with folks back in their districts. Nor did they relish the House running roughshod over the Senate during conference committee negotiations, producing a "compromise" that was replete with the House's thumbprints, and maybe a trace of a pinkie print from the Senate.
On Monday, when it was clear that the prospects for HB 2 were worse off than they had been the week before, Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, announced that she would delay the vote to try to bring the Senate's original school bill "as close to the committee report that the Senate feels comfortable with."
"I would call that compromising down, wouldn't you?" asked Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, indicating that he was at least temporarily abandoning the role of Mr. Nice Guy who votes just for the sake of moving "the process" along. "Anything less than what we voted out the first time around, and anything less than what we need for facilities and equity for teacher pay raises," he told Shapiro, "I will have to be a 'no' vote on."
Senators' beef with the specifics of the bill echo the complaints of school superintendents across the state. Chief among them, as Whitmire pointed out during his filibuster, is the loss of local control. The bill calls for a uniform school start date and for school board elections to be held in November. Further, critics charge that the bill provides little actual "new" money for education and fails to bridge the equity gap between property-rich and property-poor school districts.
Moreover, teachers say the proposed $1,000 pay raise is insulting, particularly after the Legislature sliced school employees' health care stipend in 2003 and promised to restore it in 2005. Worse, the Texas Federation of Teachers says the current proposal is crafted in such a way that it would actually decrease the salaries of 300,000 service employees, such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and custodians, by $41.66 a month. Legislators approved a $1,000 health care stipend for all employees during the 2001 session before trimming it to $500 ($250 for part-timers) during the 2003 budget shortfall. For many employees, the $1,000 represented their first opportunity to afford health insurance, said TFT President Linda Bridges. "It's a crime to take away something so critical to these employees and their families, especially since these employees are on the bottom rung of the pay scale and need all the help they can get with the rising health care costs," she said.
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