The Austin Chronicle

On the Lege: Two Sessions, Two Failures

Lawmakers still can't salvage school finance

By Amy Smith, August 19, 2005, News

First the good news: State lawmakers will end their second special session Friday without passing a school finance plan that would have provided tax breaks for the wealthy, turned failing schools over to private profiteers, and insulted teachers with a paltry pay raise. No bill is better than a bad bill, as they say.

The bad news is, the gang that couldn't shoot straight will be back for another shot at school "reform," even though the House and Senate are deadlocked on their respective definitions of reform. Instead of immediately jumping into another 30-day exercise in futility, however, the prevailing sentiment holds that the leadership will (reluctantly) wait for the Texas Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the existing school funding system before tackling the issue anew. The court is expected to rule some time this fall.

Save for sending an eminent domain bill to the governor's desk this week, legislators accomplished little this session. And with little reason to wait out the waning hours until adjournment, several lawmakers have already cleared out of town – headed to Seattle for the annual National Conference of State Legislatures, where Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, will be named president-elect – the first Hispanic and first Texan to lead the group.

The House convened on Tuesday after a long weekend, but members spent most of the day cooling their heels because there weren't enough votes to pass either a tax bill, or the House version of SB 8, the school finance plan that the Senate passed last week.

If not for the leadership, lawmakers may have by now passed a school package authored by Houston Democrat Scott Hochberg, which the House passed by a wide margin a couple of weeks ago – before blowing a head gasket and scrapping the school and tax plans altogether. The Hochberg plan gained bipartisan support because, among other things, it offered a more equitable tax break, with an increased homestead exemption for all homeowners, instead of property tax cuts for the rich.

Alas, the Hochberg amendment didn't offer the "reforms" envisioned by the Big Three.

Anyway, House Speaker Tom Craddick turned his nose up at the Senate's school bill because, he said, it doesn't contain serious reforms. Does too, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst retorted, before singling out the House's textbook bill as an example of sorry legislation that lacks reforms. The reformers went back and forth like that for a couple of days. Craddick took the argument a step further, broadcasting his distaste for the Senate package in a series of radio spots across the state. It's likely that few people outside of political junkies and Midland constituents could readily identify the man behind the twang, but there was Craddick, talking to us like an old friend. "I wanted to level with all Texans concerning our difficult struggle in Austin," the stranger's voice crackled over the airwaves. He went on to explain how the Senate had watered down all the school reforms that the House had passed in the regular and first special sessions. "As speaker," he said, "I don't believe the House should be a party to passing legislation that doesn't contain proper education reforms."

Several legislators groaned in embarrassment. Sen. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, for one, said he didn't appreciate Craddick airing the Legislature's dirty laundry across the state. "The radio spots you purchased loudly advertise the Legislature's failure," Gallego wrote to Craddick. Political advertising during a campaign season is one thing, but "by running ads now against fellow legislators (not to mention fellow members of your own party), you have elevated politics above both practicality and public policy," Gallego said. Thus, he added, "Texas politics has sunk to a new low."

Craddick changed his tune this week, leveling blame on school superintendents for the Lege's failure to pass a reform package. In his view, superintendents don't want reforms; they just want money. House Democrats this week blasted the GOP plan because it would guarantee only a 3% increase in education funding, which would be eaten up by legislative mandates and inflation. At the same time, property taxes would be cut by more than $5 billion. The plan, Gallego summed up, "would hand out a financial windfall to a few school districts and deny that same opportunity to children who don't happen to live in the 'right' ZIP code." end story

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