May 07, 2004
Encore, anyone?

Now that the Senate is trying to figure out what to do with the dead raccoon the House left on its doorstep, the question must be asked: Will there be a second session if nothing happens in this one?

The Senate will try to construct a new school finance plan before the special session ends May 19, but it will be difficult to do since the House dismantled most of its school package, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Thursday.

Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, repeated his earlier threat to keep lawmakers in Austin for another 30-day session if this one ends in failure.

Several senators said there is strong support in the Senate for legalizing video lottery terminals, or slot machines, at racetracks, despite the House's rejection of that revenue source.

Dewhurst said senators are still determined to cut school property taxes by as much as one-third or one-half and that a number of options for replacing the lost revenue are still being considered.

Among them, he said, are an expanded business franchise tax and higher or expanded sales taxes, as well as the gambling idea.

"I cannot understate how difficult this is going to be," he said, blaming "this week's events," which began when Perry, on the eve of House debate, announced his opposition to a business payroll tax, a cornerstone of the House plan.

Dewhurst met privately with senators on Thursday before the Senate adjourned until Monday afternoon, when senators hope to begin deliberations on a draft of legislation.

Dewhurst said he will continue private meetings with groups of senators today to "try to move the ball forward."

Monday is the 10th. The session will expire on the following Wednesday the 19th. That ain't a lot of time.

Dewhurst said that despite the setback, Speaker Tom Craddick had assured him that he still wanted a "permanent and comprehensive" replacement for the present school finance system, which relies heavily on local property taxes and requires wealthy school districts to share revenue with poor schools.

But many senators now are reluctant to vote for a major tax increase -- which would carry potential political risk -- for fear the House will reject it.

Dewhurst didn't rule out the possibility that some of the Senate's education goals may have to wait for the next regular legislative session, which convenes next January. But he added, "We're trying to do all of it here in the special session."

"I will keep calling lawmakers back until we have found the right mix of revenue options to improve our schools, eliminate Robin Hood (the present law), maintain equity, cut property taxes and preserve Texas' strong job-creation climate," Perry said.

Perry's saber-rattling aside, I don't think he'll be able to call session after session this time around. Unlike the redistricting fiasco, there's no clear end goal in mind, and there are sharp divisions on pretty much all of the major proposals. The most likely thing to get enough of a consensus to pass, in my mind, is something small and incremental that can be built on for the future, but this is not what the Lege wants, and I don't think any Republican sees that as a win for them, at least not after all the talk and grand plans.

Last time around, Perry had a basically unified Party and a lot of support from the national GOP, as well as some political capital to spend in the wake of the regular session, where he could claim victory on his "no new taxes" pledge. He has none of that now, and I think there's a decent chance he'll have a revolt on his hands if he tries to call more sessions when there's no consensus in sight. He could get away with one more, on grounds of running out of time, but beyond that I think he needs to see this as a hung jury that has no hope of returning a verdict and declare a mistrial. It'll be his failure of leadership if that happens, of course, but that doesn't mean he can't try to blame it on the Lege for not doing his bidding. Who knows, the voters might even buy it.

On a side note, this article and its sidebar about how each local legislator will do under the proposed property tax rollback is worth reading. Must be nice to have a $2 million house, right, Rep. Woolley?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 07, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack