I'm so glad that Governor Perry has given us these two Very Special Sessions on school finance reform. Aren't you? Of course you are. And just think, in a few months when the Texas Supremes have ruled, we get to do it all again.
One last parting gift from the state leadership:
When Texas lawmakers end their second special session of the summer today, they will be leaving $1.8 billion of the taxpayers' money sitting in the state treasury.
That's enough to cover the money legislators withheld from accounts dedicated to funding trauma care and subsidizing electric bills for the poor, as well as to give a nominal pay raise to public school teachers who are on the state's minimum salary schedule.
Or it's enough to pay for a 9-cent cut in property taxes — a cut that would save a homeowner $135 a year on a house valued at $150,000.
Lawmakers had wanted to spend the leftover $1.8 billion on public schools. But when the school finance and tax cut legislation fell apart, the money became destined to sit in the treasury until the Legislature meets again.
Unlike money Perry vetoed from the state budget, this money cannot be spent by budget execution authority because it never was appropriated.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said he thinks the Republican leadership is hanging onto the $1.8 billion to use in connection with the court's ruling.
"The reason they're holding back on all this stuff is to use it as political leverage instead of financial leverage," he said.
"All of those interests that want to lay claim to that money would be more interested in agreeing to something later if they hadn't already gotten what they want to get out of the package."
Hochberg noted the Republicans in 2003 withheld spending of $1 billion because they knew the state budget would be "in the ditch" again in 2005. He said Democrats had wanted to spend the money to fully fund the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Texas Grants higher education scholarships.
"I don't like the idea of us collecting money and having it sit in the treasury," he said.
Hochberg said there are numerous public school funding items that House and Senate lawmakers have agreed on, such as technology funding for schools. He said it would be simple to spend part or all of the $1.8 billion on those items now.
House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said the legislative leadership decided to reserve the money until after the court rules.
"If we spend that money now without knowing what direction the court is going to give us, it might be foolish spending," Pitts said. "Hopefully, we'll be back here, not next week, but in a couple of months and be able to do the right thing for our teachers."
Editorial time: The Express News gives Tom Craddick a good spanking for all his blame-everyone-but-me fingerpointing.
First, he blamed his colleagues, launching attack ads on the radio in which he accused the Senate of watering down an early House version of a school finance reform bill.
Now, he is going after school superintendents, saying they are more interested in funding than they are in reform.
"All they want is money," Craddick told the Express-News. "They are not interested in any reforms, any changes. ... They just want money, and they don't want any changes in the system."
With his accusatory finger pointing in all directions, one has to wonder who his next target will be. Why not blame the kids? After all, they are not even interested in the legislative process; all they want to do is go home every day feeling as if they learned something.
With lawmakers whimpering and pointing fingers, the only option is to await guidance from the Texas Supreme Court, which is reviewing a lower court ruling that the public education system violated the state constitution.
After expressing his frustration over the issue recently, Craddick said he might "go fishing."
If he fails to catch any fish, don't worry; he'll find someone to blame.
For once, partisanship can't be blamed for this debacle. All members of the state's triad leadership are Republican. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick come away from this session looking less like statesmen and more like Larry, Curley and Moe. Since taking control of the Legislature in 2002, for the first time in modern Texas politics, the main achievement of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate was the congressional redistricting battle of 2003.
Next year Texas voters will have the opportunity to grade the performance of their leaders at the polls. After leaving their major legislative assignment unfinished, officials from the governor on down have a lot of explaining to do as to why they deserve re-election.