Perry Settles for a 'Half-Loaf'
And he's 'stunned' that you would question his special sessions
Gov. Rick Perry may have stiffened his resolve to keep legislators in Austin until they pass a school finance bill, but he's softened his approach toward achieving what has eluded him for more than a year.
In other words, the governor is ready to cut a deal. He says he's willing to consider a scaled-down version of a massive overhaul of education funding and property tax reform, and settle for bare-bones legislation that would, at the very least, provide funding for textbooks and pay raises for teachers. As for property tax relief the GOP's much-touted centerpiece of school finance it may have to wait, Perry said at a press briefing Monday. The governor's change of heart follows last week's meltdown in which the House, in a fit of frustration and despair, slaughtered both the school funding plan and its tax component. Tax bills must originate in the House, but members haven't made a move to try to salvage a tax plan. "If you can get a half-loaf versus a full loaf," Perry conceded, "you generally take a slice or two if you can get that."
He may have to settle for a crust. With just two weeks remaining in the second special session, and the start of the school year, the challenge now lies in getting lawmakers to agree to an exit strategy. Meanwhile, there are two Senate bills in the hopper that follow Perry's idea of settling for a slimmed-down school plan that covers the basics but steers clear of the more controversial "reform" measures (see "Lege Notes").
An abbreviated school-funding plan would provide some heartburn relief at the Capitol, where lawmakers have been hopelessly deadlocked for several weeks. But it could also backfire on the campaign trail, when Perry and the rest of the bunch have to explain their failed promises on property tax relief. That prospect provides a convincing argument for Perry to call yet another special session on school finance.
"There's going to be an election in the not-too-distant future," Perry said. "We can either do it now or we will talk about it in March and November of 2006."
Perry addressed the school finance puzzle this week after a ceremonial signing of a clean-energy bill one of the few things lawmakers have accomplished this session. The House and Senate sponsors of SB 20 Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin were on hand for the signing, but were largely ignored once Perry invited questions from the media. Of course, there were no questions whatsoever on SB 20, but there were plenty on school finance. Perry expected as much. In his prepared remarks, the governor noted that while the clean-energy bill marks an important investment in the state's future, the measure "pales in comparison" to the importance of resolving the state's school finance crisis. "Each day that passes without education reform is another day textbooks remain in warehouses instead of being shipped to classrooms," he said, "and money set aside for teacher pay raises sits idle in a bank account."
Legislators have repeatedly tried and failed to crack the school finance mystery since a district court ruled the current system unconstitutional. The state's appeal of the ruling is pending in the Texas Supreme Court. Asked why the Legislature doesn't hold off on school finance until the court's decision expected within the next several weeks the governor simply reiterated the state's argument that school finance matters should be decided by the Legislature, not the courts.
On another topic, Perry bristled at the suggestion that the special sessions he's called have been a waste of time and money. "I am stunned that you would ask a question about the cost of a special session versus the benefit that can come," he replied. "The billions of dollars that would occur ... from lowering the property taxes, [and] the businesses that would come to this state that's a minor amount of money relative to what this means to the teachers of the state of Texas, for crying out loud."
Even if lawmakers fail to pass a bare-bones school bill this session, they at least restored the $30 billion school budget that Perry vetoed before the start of the first special session. Rest assured that he wouldn't be pulling that stunt again. Perry said he intends to sign the bill.