Opening Moves

I was leaving the Capitol yesterday evening when I saw Chairman Pitts standing outside his office. I asked him some questions about the timeline for the supplemental appropriations bill. He told me that the bill had to lay out for six days, so any action on it is likely to be thrown into next week. I asked him if he expected any opposition to the bill. He smiled, and it was clear that he does. I asked him if he thought the opposition might come from a Democratic amendment to restore the education spending cuts. Another smile.

Some comments about the supplemental: First, it requires a simple majority to pass. Second, it has to pass. The Legislature must pay for items that were not funded during the 2011 session. Democrats have 55 votes, so they have some leverage.

Then, after I returned home, I saw this press release in my e-mail inbox:

HOUSE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS’ STATEMENT ON SCHOOL FINANCE:WE MUST ACT NOW AND RESTORE FUNDING TO PUBLIC EDUCATION


Representative Yvonne Davis, Leader of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, released the following statement on behalf of the House Democratic Caucus today regarding Judge John Dietz’s ruling on Texas’s school finance system:

Judge John Dietz’s recent ruled [sic] that Texas’s school finance system is unconstitutional. This ruling reaffirms what the House Democratic Caucus has been saying for years. Our school finance system is broken! The Legislature most act now to fix it.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus strongly urge Attorney General Greg Abbott to accept the ruling. Texas school children should not be forced to wait for relief while the state pursues a lengthy and costly appeals process.

The House Democratic Caucus will continue to provide innovative solutions. In fact. Representative Donna Howard’s 2011 amendment funded enrollment growth, but it was rejected by the Republican majority. We know what is at stake and stand ready to work with our colleagues to find a permanent solution.

Rather than continuing with the Republican agenda of massive cuts to public education, the House Democratic Caucus stands poised to meet our constitutional obligations by providing quality education to all children. 

Today, the House Democratic Leader and Democratic members announce their intent to offer an amendment to the supplemental budget. This amendment will utilize the budget surplus and restore $5.4 billion in funding to public education that was cut last session as well as pursue ways to fund education this biennium.

The House Democratic Caucus remains committed and ready!

Democrats have signaled their intention to offer an amendment to restore the spending cuts. The debate on the supplemental will be a baptism by fire for the large contingent of freshmen and sophomore Republicans. That’s a $5.4 billion spending bill. Even pro-school Republicans are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place. If they vote to restore the cuts, they can be attacked as big spenders. If they vote against the Democrats’ amendment, they can be attacked as anti-education.

Charters v. PEG

As most readers know, one of the battles of the 83rd Legislature is likely to occur over the use of public funds for private schools. Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Senator Dan Patrick are backing the proposal. (At a recent Texas Tribune event, Speaker Straus urged caution on the issue.) The rationale for the use of vouchers is that students should not be stuck in failing schools, a proposition that is hard to argue with.

What many lawmakers may not know is that the Texas Education Agency has a school choice program intended to ensure that no student is stuck in a failing school. The program is called PEG, short for Public Education Grants. PEG permits parents to request that their children in failing schools be allowed to transfer to schools in other school districts after meeting a set of requirements. A “failing school” is defined as one in which 50% or more of students did not pass any of the TAKS and STAAR subjects in two of the three preceding years, or any school that was rated “academically unacceptable” in 2010 or 2011.

EmpowerTexans Has No Business Running Texas

On Friday afternoon, I paid a quick visit to my actual office for the first time since Monday, and noticed something on my desk, which is half-covered with documents that I haven’t decided what to do with, including this one. It was a copy of a letter that EmpowerTexans sent to subscribers in Denton County on April 13th, which an unamused (and conspiracy-minded) recipient had forwarded to Texas Monthly’s general mailbag, which you can see below the jump.

I don’t remember when exactly I received it, or whether I gave it much thought at the time. The letter was clearly a sinister mishmash of lies, illogic, and typos, but the same could be said of most EmpowerTexans essays. And between JudicialWatch’s fabrications, AgendaWise’s feverish imaginings, the Lieutenant Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Board unhinged analysis of public education, Molly White’s response to her critics, the open-carry advocates who flipped out at Dan Patrick for telling them a truth they didn’t want to hear, the right-wing carnie who set her internet goons on me when I disputed her assertion that my April feature on this year’s open carry debate was “sexist”, etc, etc, etc, it’s not in itself the most lurid, risible, or wrong-headed thing I’ve read all session. But I do remember why I held on to this letter. And on Friday, as a result of intervening developments, I was glad I did; in light of subsequent events I’m afraid this is a fairly disturbing document.

The End Game

Here we are in the home stretch of the regular session, and this year, earlier than usual, the Lege is divided along chamber lines rather than party ones. Tax cuts, obviously, are the biggest point of contention between the House and the Senate. Both chambers have approved proposals that would cut the franchise tax collections by a bit more than $2bn each biennium; the rivalry there is not severe. The Senate, however, announced in February that it would seek an additional $2.1bn in “property tax relief”.

Advantage: House

Watching the Texas House today, I found myself wondering whether it would be sacrilegious and/or offensive to thank the Lord Jesus for Joe Straus, who as Speaker of the Texas House is effectively running state government right now.  

The main event on the floor, as R.G. previewed this morning, was the preliminary passage of two tax bills authored by Ways & Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, one proposing a cut to the state sales tax rate, the other to the franchise tax rate. Taken together, the result would be $4.9 billion in biennial tax cuts, and a number of Democrats, including Donna Howard, Chris Turner, Sylvester Turner, and Armando Walle, offered cogent arguments against making such cuts, especially at a moment when the state economy is vulnerable as a result of lowish oil prices, and with the school finance ruling still pending.

Since this is Texas, however, the tax cuts passed. The only surprise was in the lopsided margins. 141 legislators voted for HB 31, the sales tax bill; no one voted against it. More than half the Democrats in the chamber voted against the franchise tax cuts, HB 32, but it nonetheless passed easily, 116-29. Perhaps most significant at all was a vote cast during the debate over the latter bill itself.

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