April 15, 2004
Special session blues

I was too lazy to round up some stories on the long awaited and much dreaded special session on school finance reform from yesterday, but at least I bookmarked the relevant URLs. So let's look at them now.

Houston's school districts are unsure about the effects of the Perry plan on their finances.

"To have a permanent solution is going to require a stable source of revenue over time," said Bill Carpenter, assistant superintendent for governmental relations with the Houston Independent School District.

"Some of the suggestions that have been made do not appear to be something that you can pin on for the long haul. The sin taxes would be one thing."

Boy, where have I heard that before?

Spring Branch Superintendent Yvonne Katz said more than half of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch and another third were in bilingual or English as a second language programs.

As part of the current funding formula known as "Robin Hood," where more wealthy schools must contribute to those less wealthy, Spring Branch must pay $11 million next year to Laredo ISD.

"We can use those dollars to help our own children, who through no fault of their own have to face the challenges of coming to a new country," said Katz, whose district has joined others in a lawsuit seeking to force an overhaul of the system.

David Thompson is one of two lead attorneys representing those districts, which include Katy, Cy-Fair, Spring and Humble.

Thompson said the districts he represents are skeptical of proposals that would tie some funding to performance, an idea that Perry has floated.

"Am I going to give this year's kids less money because of something that happened on that campus two years ago when they weren't there and maybe their principal wasn't there?" Thompson said.

Legislators must come up with a plan that gives some property tax relief but also increases school funding across the board, said HISD trustee Harvin Moore.

"What voters have to focus on now is letting it be known that they're not just looking for a session," Moore said. "They're looking for a solution."

So far, only school finance is on the agenda. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn says the Governor ought to add CHIP money back now that he has the chance.

Minutes after Perry announced he was calling the Legislature back to Austin on April 20 for a special session on school finance, Strayhorn's office delivered a letter asking the governor to also put funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program on the session's agenda.

"This is not about politics -- this is about saving lives," wrote Strayhorn, who is believed to be considering a re-election challenge of Perry in the 2006 Republican primary.

About 119,000 children have been dropped from the health-care program for the working poor since September because of budget cuts enacted by the Legislature last year, the comptroller said.

She said the governor was "sitting on" $583 million in mostly federal funds that could be used to put thousands of children back on the program.

"You must act now," Strayhorn urged the governor.

I'm sure he'll get right back to you on that, Carole.

What could be worse than a special session on schoo, finance reform? How about multiple special sessions on school finance reform?

Gov. Rick Perry held out the prospect of a long, hot debate through early summer as he announced that he will call lawmakers into special session on school finance and taxes next Tuesday.

"I can't promise our work will be done in one session, or two or three," Perry warned at a Capitol news conference on Tuesday. "But I can promise this: We won't fail simply because we refused to try."

Special sessions are limited to 30 days each, but governors can call as many as they deem to be politically feasible.

Perry vowed, "We will stay until it gets fixed."

Perry has been tootling around the state promoting his plan now that it's finally been made public. Here he was in Sugar Land, home of Tom DeLay.

"I've got a plan that will immediately cut property taxes, will give schools the most equitable system they've ever had and supply substantial new dollars into our classrooms," he said at Dulles Middle School in Sugar Land, a southwest Houston suburb in the Fort Bend Independent School District.


Betty Baitland, Fort Bend superintendent, withheld an endorsement of the package, saying she needed to look at the details.

I'm intrigued by that last bit. Sugar Land is the very definition of Republican suburb, which is to say Perry's base of support. If they're not enthusiastic about his plan there, that's got to be trouble for him. Of course, he's really more interested in what the people of Sugar Land who send their kids to private schools think, but still.

Finally, a little preview of how things will go in the Senate from the Express News

House and Senate leaders have not proposed education funding plans this year, though Dewhurst last year led the Senate to approve a plan to cut local school taxes in half and create a statewide property tax and expanded, increased state sales taxes.

At the time, Perry and Craddick said action on the topic was premature.

This year, senators have said they intend to wait for a House plan including politically ticklish tax changes that must originate in the House before debating changes.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said her party's senators support more education aid but oppose Perry's split taxation idea. She predicted a "very interesting and intense 30 days."

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, credited Perry with "doing the right thing" by calling a session more than three months before a state district judge hears a lawsuit filed by school districts challenging funding adequacy.

"Baby steps will not suffice to fix the problem," an attorney for the suing districts said. "The Legislature will need to come up with a significant amount of new money to cure the constitutional deficiencies in the system."

Lawmakers pulled into session will respond, Wentworth said, adding, "We are procrastinators like everybody else."

Let the games begin.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 15, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack