[Editors note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards were among the groups that met with Senator Royce West last weekend to discuss the school finance plan. Neither TASA nor TASB were present at a meeting with West. However, sources close to West confirm that the TASB did convey to him that it was ambivalent about the possible benefit of a special session. The post has been corrected.]
The test pilots of the 1950s had a saying for when one of their own messed up and lost an aircraft. The pilot, they said, had “screwed the pooch.” Senator Wendy Davis, her Democratic colleagues, and their consultants have—in the lingo of the test pilots—screwed the pooch.
Davis’ session-ending filibuster on the public school funding formulas was hailed earlier this week as a noble stand for education and a kick in the shins of the possible presidential aspirations of Governor Rick Perry. But after talking with many sources this week who have intimate knowledge of the events leading up to the filibuster, I have a different view of it. Now it looks far more like a pyrrhic victory that increases the possibility that bills will pass that will harm teachers and the Texas Democratic Party for the decade to come.
The behind-the-scenes drama that lead up to the Davis’ filibuster on Sunday was filled with anxiety. All day long, Senate Democrats struggled to decide what would be the best course of action in the face of a final vote on Senate Bill 1811, the fiscal matters bill containing the formulas for how to divide school funds after a $4 billion cut. The internal debate began in early afternoon Sunday as Leticia Van de Putte, leader of the Senate Democratic caucus, told her colleagues that House Democrats were going to combine with Tea Party Republicans to kill the bill (the tea partiers disliked the bill because of its impact on their local school districts.). The House Democrats wanted to know if the Senate Democrats would back them. That prompted the first talk in the Senate that perhaps the Democrats should kill it as well. They lacked the votes, but it could be done with a filibuster against a midnight deadline for passage. Rodney Ellis, I’m told, started stirring the pot.
The Democrats went into a caucus in the Betty King room with Ellis advocating for a filibuster to kill the bill. Ellis’ staff had produced two pages of talking points against the bill. Ellis argued that killing the bill would make a point that Democrats would stand up for public education. Davis joined Ellis in making the same argument. Some said Ellis “played her like a puppet,” though others said they respected her right to filibuster even if they thought it was bad strategy.
However, Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen told his fellow senators that a special session would give Perry the opportunity to reopen the debate on a crackdown on illegal immigrants through the now-dead sanctuary cities legislation. The rumor was that big-money Republicans Bob Perry and Doug Pitcock—both Houstonians with large construction companies—had persuaded the governor to let the legislation quietly die. But Hinojosa worried that the pursuit of Tea Party voters might have more sway with Perry in a special session, especially if Perry really was looking at running for president. Hinojosa wanted to know: What was the end game? If the Democrats killed school finance in the regular session, how would they win in a special? Senator Kirk Watson of Austin made a similar argument. Watson told Davis he planned to vote against the bill, but that by now it was too late—if the Democrats had wanted to filibuster, they should have done it a week before the end of the session with the galleries filled with teachers. Ellis countered that any bad legislation that might be brought up in a special session caused by a filibuster would come up anyway in a session Perry is expected to call in July.
The wrangling went on. Senators who favored a filibuster thought Davis should do it because she had lost her district in redistricting. The adulation she would receive from Democratic activists might help her run for a neighboring district or some other office, and it would inspire party members after a session of losses. The ironic thing was the funding formulas Davis was opposing hurt her Fort Worth ISD less than most other major urban school districts. The average cut for similar districts in Texas would have been $366 per student in 2013, but Fort Worth’s cut was to have been just $96 a student. By filibustering, she was opening the possibility that her own district would suffer bigger cuts. I’m told that at around 3 p.m. on Sunday, Davis reviewed the situation with her political consultant, J.D. Angle, who urged the filibuster. Davis decided to go for it.
Over in the House, the rumored effort to kill the bill failed to materialize, as the House voted 84-63 to pass the school finance plan about 9 p.m. with just 14 Republicans joining Democrats in voting against it. That included a dozen Republicans who also had voted for the budget cuts. Attention swung back to the Senate, where Davis began her filibuster about 10:45 p.m. She read aloud letters from constituents until midnight Sunday, effectively killing the bill plan.
But the wrangling was not over. The following morning, the last of the regular session, there was an effort to revive the bill with a four-fifths procedural vote, which would have required six Democrats to cross over at least for the procedural vote. The Democratic caucus had a discussion that focused on “What next?” Davis arrived late and made an emotional appeal for her colleagues to back her up. The caucus voted seven to five to support Davis unless a reasonable compromise could be reached with Republicans.
The remainder of the day was tense. Royce West summoned education lobbyists and leaders to his Capitol office to hear their thoughts on having a special session. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association did not think a better deal was possible. The Texas AFT was ready for a Wisconsin-style throw-down with the Republican legislature. The Texas State Teachers Association leadership told him there did not appear to be anything to be gained by a special session and Democrats should only force one if they realistically thought they could get more money for schools.
West and Democratic senators Carlos Uresti of San Antonio and John Whitmire of Houston then started a series of meetings with Republican senators Robert Duncan of Lubbock and Kevin Eltife of Tyler, along with Perry’s legislative liaison, Ken Armbrister. The Democrats wanted a way to save face: A little more money for education, perhaps, or an agreement on the windstorm insurance conflict and a promise that Perry would not add sanctuary cities to any special session call. But Representative John Smithee of Amarillo was not budging on the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association bill; the House was refusing to put more money into education; and Perry wouldn’t show his hand on sanctuary cities. Finally, at 4 p.m. on Monday, David Dewhurst was informed that negotiations were over. There was no deal. A special session could not be avoided.
Immediately the spin began. Democrats had hoped that killing the session would make Perry look bad, but it didn’t. He appeared on Tuesday as the steely-eyed sheriff who had called lawmakers back into session because one senator kept them from getting the job done. Davis met reporters in the hallway outside of Perry’s office after his news conference to deny that her motivations were political. “I’m trying to make a statement that cutting $4 billion in public education funds is unacceptable,” Davis said in defense of her actions.
She’s right. The cut should be unacceptable. But most of the state’s pro-education groups were ready to accept it. Teacher groups had been relieved that they had gotten out of the session without legislation to ease a district’s ability to fire or furlough them or make them work in larger classrooms. Most public school administrators were willing to accept the cuts as more reasonable that the originally proposed $8 billion slaughter. Save Texas Schools had had an anemic rally on May 21 that convinced many Republican lawmakers that the public at large did not care as much about public school funding as their Tea Party constituents did about cutting it. And Raise Your Hand—noted for the Tommy Lee Jones television commercial about how Texas ranked 44th in the nation for per-pupil spending—ended the session asking its members to support public education by backing the Senate’s $4 billion in cuts. It was thin gruel, but the Texas education establishment was ready to eat what was put in front of them and dare not ask for more.
Before the regular session ended, Perry seemed disinclined to have a special session on congressional redistricting. Now there is a plan on the table, and it isn’t pretty, undercutting Democrats and minimizing Hispanic population growth. U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, who’s been on the enemy list since he held up $830 million in EduJobs for Texas schools because he had correctly assumed the GOP leadership would use the money to cut state spending for schools rather than enhance the educational pot of gold, is in the cross-hairs. And instead of going into federal court with no plan for Texas, Democratic and Hispanic groups likely will have to challenge an existing law—a harder hill to climb.
Redistricting and sanctuary cities might have occurred in an expected July special session on TWIA, but probably none of the education legislation would have come up again if not for the session-killing filibuster.
Despite all the first-blush accolades for Davis, I’m much more reminded of the ending of The Bridge Over the River Kwai. In the insular world of a prisoner of war camp, the chief protagonist, Colonel Nicholson, had won a point of principle over his Japanese captors and maintained his POW British soldiers’ pride by building a bridge for the Japanese Army that would last 500 years. Only as the allied commandoes tried to destroy his work did the truth of his actions come home to roost. With a look of bewilderment on his face, he asks himself, “What have I done?”
By R.G. RATCLIFFE
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