AUSTIN (AP) — How the state will pay for public schools will take center stage this week in the political theater known as the Texas Legislature, and it will likely remain there throughout the session.
A very public and somewhat tense conversation between House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts and his Democratic vice chair, Sylvester Turner, provided a sneak preview. Turner spoke up after their committee finished its work earlier than expected on Tuesday, the morning after a judge declared their public school finance system unconstitutional.
“There are a lot of things we could discuss, like what happened yesterday afternoon at around 5 o’clock,” Turner said as Pitts started to end the meeting.
“I’m sure we’ll be discussing that, too,” Pitts answered with a tight smile.
“And there is no place better to discuss it than right here, right now,” Turner pressed, tapping his finger on the dais.
“I think when the judge finishes his opinion, we’ll be discussing that,” Pitts replied, hoping to end the on-camera conversation before a crowded committee room.
“Because I don’t think we should be allowing judges to determine legislative priorities. That is not the conservative thing to do,” Turner added wryly, prompting laughter from the audience. Rather than reply, Pitts called on a fellow Republican and ended the meeting.
That interaction betrayed how Texas Democrats are laying the ground work to make public school funding a major issue this legislative session, and how they hope to set Republicans up for some potentially embarrassing votes that can be used against them in 2014.
Last session, the Republican-controlled Legislature rewrote the public education funding formulas to cut $5.4 billion from the budget, the first cut in per-student spending since World War II. That prompted two-thirds of the state’s school districts to sue and win a ruling that the Legislature has failed its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public schools.
Democrats have repeatedly called on the Legislature to restore those cuts. But House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has said lawmakers shouldn’t make any changes to the school finance system until the Texas Supreme Court has a chance to rule on the lawsuit, something that will not happen before the legislative session ends in May.
Like Turner, though, Democrats want action now. They have called on Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to accept the ruling without filing an appeal and for the Legislature to fix the school finance problem this session.
In addition, the House Democratic Caucus says it will introduce a measure to restore the $5.4 billion in cuts to this year’s budget by adding it to an emergency spending bill needed to pay for Medicaid. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, will also try on Monday to convince the House to declare school finance an emergency item and begin work on the matter immediately.
These votes will be just the beginning of a long, drawn out effort to get Republicans to either vote for increased government spending — which will get them in trouble in the 2014 Republican primaries — or get them to vote against public education spending, which will give Democrats an issue in the 2014 general elections.
The Republican leadership recognizes the trap and will do its best to side-step it. The GOP will also use parliamentary procedure to block votes and argue that rewriting school finance laws while there is ongoing litigation is foolish.
Privately, Republicans say they want to delay any action on school finance for as long as possible and are considering stalling tactics. Abbott can do Republican lawmakers a favor and slow-peddle the appeals process to make sure the lawsuit lasts well into 2014. Then Gov. Rick Perry can call a special legislative session after the 2014 primaries and before the 2014 general election.
Such a special session would allow Republican lawmakers to vote for a school finance overhaul that boosts spending after they’ve made it past the notoriously conservative Republican primary voter. They would also solve the school finance problem before Democrats could attack them for not taking care of public schools, one of the most important issues for the general election voter.
Fischer’s opening gambit on Monday will be just the beginning of a political drama that has as much to do with politics as it does with the school children of Texas.
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