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Lawmakers struggle over school financing deal

AUSTIN (AP) — Texas lawmakers met behind closed doors Wednesday to hammer out a new school financing law as time was running out for the 2011 legislative session.

House and Senate members were trying to reach an agreement on how to cut $4 billion from public education funding, the first cut in school spending since at least World War II.

Late Wednesday, House Speaker Joe Strauss, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the House and Senate conference committee members met in Strauss’ office to work out a deal. Afterward, all parties said negotiations would continue, possibly until Friday’s deadline.

Dewhurst said House and Senate members each thought their chamber had the best solution but that a compromise was possible. Sen. Florence Shapiro, the chair of the Public Education Committee, said she was fighting to solve the long-term problems with the school finance system. But House negotiator Rep. Dan Branch said he was looking for a simple, temporary solution that representatives could accept this late in the legislative session.

“Neither side is taking a ‘take-it-or-leave-it approach,'” Branch said.

The basic stumbling block was how much would be cut from which schools for how long.

How much state money a school district receives is currently based on a complicated formula that froze total per student spending at 2006 levels. The current system was created in 2006 as a temporary measure to reduce local property taxes and to make up the difference by revamping the business franchise tax.

That tax, though, has never brought in as much money as expected, and when combined with falling property values and the 2009 recession, the state is now $27 billion short of financing current operations over the next two years.

Republican leaders who control the Legislature have proposed cutting $4 billion from public schools, but that would require rewriting school finance law because the spending drops below 2006 levels.

Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, proposed a House bill that would cut funding for all school districts equally by about 6 percent. But Shapiro, R-Plano, proposed a bill that would fix inequalities in the current system that favor wealthy suburban school districts over less fortunate urban and rural schools.

The amount spent per student in Texas public schools ranges from as little $5,000 to as much as $10,000 per year, depending on the school district.

Reaching a deal on a new school financing formula is critical to passing a two-year budget. If an agreement is not reached by Saturday and made law by May 30, Gov. Rick Perry will be forced to call a special session before the fiscal year ends Aug. 31.

Democrats, who make up a minority in both the House and Senate, have fought hard to spend part of the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to avoid cutting public school funding. But Perry and other Republican leaders rejected the proposal and insisted on cuts.

House budget chief Rep. Jim Pitts said Wednesday that the Rainy Day Fund had to be preserved because of expected shortfalls in the state Medicaid budget over the next two years.

The draft budget “already has a shortfall for Medicaid,” Pitts said. “We need to keep our Rainy Day Fund whole so we have enough money so that if the laws don’t change … we have enough Rainy Day Fund to finish out our Medicaid obligations.”

Making greater cuts from wealthy districts and lesser cuts from poor districts is more feasible for senators, who represent large districts. But House members with small districts feel far greater pressure, particularly in suburban areas where school organizations are powerful. Across-the-board cuts are easier for representatives to defend when facing re-election.

The Senate’s budget chief, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said lawmakers could agree on a hybrid.

“It’s important to keep looking for any possible solution. Blending and compromising a little is a possibility,” he said.

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Posted by on May 25 2011. Filed under News, School news. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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