Inside the Unraveling of School Finance Legislation

As the 132nd day of the 82nd Legislature waned, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, stood in front of his colleagues, introducing legislation he knew would soon die.

By 8 p.m. before a key midnight passage deadline, House members had already pre-filed more than 70 amendments to the fiscal matters bill that might be the final chance to pass education legislation — most importantly, a school finance measure — out of the chamber.

As he acknowledged a Democrat standing at the microphone in the back of the chamber, ready to pose a challenge or question to the legislation, Aycock, with a tone of resignation, told his fellow representatives, “The helicopter is not going to leave.”

“I think we will park school finance for a couple of years and come back,” he said, adding, “And I hope that you will join me when we come back and try to write good policy, not just looking at runs.”

Aycock’s fatalism about the critical legislation was justified. His Democratic colleague raised a point of order — a procedural gambit that can stop a bill in its tracks — that was ultimately sustained, effectively killing the bill and setting in motion a frantic effort to pass school finance legislation in the eight days left in the session. With a day to go before Sine Die, on the other side of the pink dome, a late-night filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Forth Worth, was the final nail in the school finance coffin.

 

But the earlier failure of SB 1581, which put a behind-closed-doors conference committee in charge of any decisions about how to distribute $4 billion in cuts in state funding across school districts, was a dramatic warning of just how much further lawmakers had to go to find consensus on what they repeatedly called the “second most important bill” of the session. As lawmakers again tackle the issue in the special session the governor called on Tuesday, it is worth revisiting the demise of SB 1581.

Passing a new school finance plan, said veteran education consultant Lynn Moak, often depends on selling lawmakers on what changing formulas will mean for their districts. That can lead to a situation, he said, where “we're really passing a printout and having to translate it back into a school finance bill.” Difficult under normal circumstances, that becomes infinitely more challenging when the state is coming up $4 billion short in funding for public education.

“Nobody has ever done this before. Nobody has ever had the kind of massive cuts to deal with,” he said, adding, “The Legislature really did not spend any time prior to January trying to work out a game plan, and wrote one as they went along, and it showed.”

Before the conference committee were three options to chose from: separate proposals from Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, that enacted cuts relative to a districts’ wealth, and a proposal from Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, that chopped districts the same across the board. Each, though, contained a numbers game nobody really wanted to play.

The simplicity of Eissler's approach — which was originally a last-minute amendment to SB 1581 — gave it a political advantage among House members. In a scenario with no real winners, lawmakers newly unsettled by the stark realization of what the gaping reduction meant for schools in their districts realized they wouldn’t have to return to their superintendents and explain why they voted for deeper cuts for some and not others.

That still wasn’t enough for the House to coalesce around Eissler’s plan in time to pass it as a part of SB 1581. As the bill came up on the House floor, "there was no single bloc of votes for anything,” said David Anderson, an education lobbyist for the Austin-based HillCo Partners, a government consulting firm, who described a “meltdown” that night between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. as members began taking a hard look at projections of the cuts for their districts.

Aycock and Eissler both said that until shortly before then, members had been concerned with what the budget cuts were going to look like across the state, and hadn’t had an opportunity to consider the impact on their individual districts.

"People were so focused on the cuts that only those few geeks of us who wade around in school finance even saw it coming,” Aycock said, adding, “It was only late in the session when we figured out the number, and then the question became how do we divvy it up.”

 

In the Senate, Shapiro’s bill had languished on the intent calendar for a month without the necessary two-thirds vote to come up for consideration on the floor. She succeeded in attaching it to SB 1581 as an amendment, which only required a simple majority to pass, which it did, only, of course, to have it die in the House.

With SB 1581 out the window, the only path for a new school finance plan became as an amendment in the conference committee to another fiscal matters bill already passed by both chambers. On Friday, as the committee met to find an agreement on a proposal, deadlines for a deal to be reached came and went unmet. As information about the negotiations filtered out to the media, it became clear that representatives from the House had decided Eissler’s plan was the way to go — and that senators were standing behind Shapiro’s proposal.

The three-hour discussion between leadership in both chambers, and at some points, Gov. Rick Perry, produced a final product that Moak said had “all the earmarks of a shotgun wedding.” In the first year of the biennium it follows Eissler’s plan, enacting a 6 percent cut to all districts; in the second, it follows Shapiro’s, concentrating most of the reductions on property wealthy districts that have greatly benefited from the target revenue system created in 2006.

It also makes a historic change in state law, eliminating the process that requires the state to reimburse any unexpected shortfall in funding owed to districts under statute. Instead of having an amount guaranteed under law, schools would be funded through the appropriations process each session depending on the amount of money available.

And as House Democrats vociferously pointed out, there were no public hearings on the new plan and neither chamber debated it.

Now, today, three days into the special session, the Senate Education Committee will take up the school finance measure that came out of those Friday afternoon talks, a compromise that Eissler said he has already heard complaints about from both sides. How the extra scrutiny of a special session will influence support for the plan remains to be seen.

“If they understand it better, will they like it better or will they like it less?” Aycock asked. “I'm not ready to answer that question yet."

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