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House Appropriations follows Senate, passes SB1

The grim march of the inevitable takes another step.

The House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines on Saturday to recommend a controversial plan to reduce public education spending by at least $4 billion, cuts which hundreds of Texans later protested during a Capitol rally.

The full House will take up the school funding bill later in the week in a special session that Gov. Rick Perry called Tuesday after Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, killed the plan to cut public education with a filibuster in the last hours of the regular session.

Actually, the Appropriations committee vote wasn’t exactly along party lines.

Abilene Republican Rep. Susan King, who voted against a similar measure during the regular legislative session, said she still cannot support the measure because the scope is too broad. Not only does it contain $3.5 billion in “non-tax revenue” to help balance the 2012-13 budget, but also a highly contentious school funding plan that was finished just two days before the end of the regular session Monday.

“I voted against it several times,” King said after the House Appropriations Committee meeting had adjourned. “It’s the fact that something of this major importance was brought out in a very cloaked way at the very end and pushed into a fiscal matters bill. It should have been kept out. It should have been kept separate, in my opinion. Almost everything for education was rolled into that one fiscal matters bill.”

[…]

King’s vote is evidence of the lack of unanimity among even Republicans over the measure, particularly the school funding plan.

While Democrats are opposed to it mostly because of the sizable cuts it imposes on schools, Republicans such as King question the fairness of how those cuts are distributed and are wary of the last-minute — even secretive — nature of the closed-door negotiations that produced the plan.

King said her questions and concerns were dismissed.

“Toward the end of the session, I asked multiple times, you know, ‘What exactly are the negotiations on this? What is it, what will be brought to us?’ ” King said. “And, I mean, you cannot imagine the comments made to me. You know, ‘You don’t need to ask that question,’ ‘You’re going to hurt the deliberations if you ask for that.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s just transparency.’ ”

Of the 20 committee members present Saturday, 14 voted for the measure — including Rep. Drew Darby, who represents San Angelo’s District 72 — and five voted against the measure — including King and four Democrats. Another Republican, Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, registered “present not voting.” Seven members were absent.

You’d think that lack of transparency that Rep. King cites might be a concern to more people. Does the Lege really know what it’s about to vote on? As Rep. Scott Hochberg pointed out, there hasn’t even been a committee hearing on the proposed changes to school finance. The response from those pushing to get something passed, as expressed by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, is that they have to do something now, and they can fix whatever it is they do in 2013. The thing is, though, they wouldn’t actually have to do that. Patricia Kilday Hart explains:

In our current system, the Legislature sets out school funding formulas in statute, usually after lawmakers see computer runs demonstrating how a particular scheme affects their schools. Putting those formulas in statute means the state is legally obligated to fully compensate school districts for variables like enrollment growth or lost tax revenue due to declining property values.

But the plan panned by Davis and Hochberg — and again under consideration in the special session — will free lawmakers to decide each budget cycle to choose how much money schools get. Public education will be toppled from its special status in the state budget to just another program that will compete for scarce dollars.

The GOP leadership has downplayed the impact of this change, arguing that lawmakers have always made public schools a priority. But the very reason this school finance bill is necessary is to free the state from owing about $4 billion under current formulas.

To some, including Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, this is sound policy. Last week, he called the school finance proposal “a true cut in an entitlement.”

Note the use of that dirty word — entitlement — as if public education is some kind of welfare, not the underpinning of democracy envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.

This school finance bill is a tipping point for the Texas public education system. If the state’s obligation to local schools is no longer carved in statute, public education funding becomes vulnerable to last-minute budget balancing by 10 lawmakers on a conference committee. If they decide to trim a couple of billion from education, the other 171 members of the Legislature have little voice.

Not to mention the voters. We’re one step closer to that now.

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