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Trial Balloons

The ideas on what to do with the state budget are getting weirder and weirder.

The ideas on what to do with the state budget are getting weirder and weirder. For instance:

• Can lawmakers pass a budget without public education funding in it and come back to that later in a special session? Sure, as long as it balances. But it would create a little problem for the school districts looking to see how much money the state is sending. Those districts are in the early budget stages themselves and need to set their targets, and their tax rates, by sometime in mid-July. Waiting on all or part of the budget could push those deadlines, but would also give lawmakers a close-up look at what their budget would mean to the school districts back home.

• What happens if the House budget prevails in conference committee? Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts says Medicaid and public schools would run out of money in the spring of 2013, when lawmakers are in the early weeks of that year's regular legislative session. Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden has already 'fessed up on the Medicaid piece, saying the state's Rainy Day Fund would have to be tapped if current federal law doesn't change and if the economy doesn't cough up an unexpected $3 to $4 billion. What's set aside for Medicaid would be short by that much under current law, given caseload and cost increases. If nothing changes, that money will have to come out of the RDF. A shortage in education funds could force another draw on the piggy bank. That'll be the question at this month's final budget debates: Do you want to cut programs, raise money with new taxes or some mix of non-tax revenues, or hit the Rainy Day Fund?

• If the state passes a budget with education cuts and then doesn't pass new school finance formulas, what happens? The state would have to fund the schools during the 2011-12 academic year according to current formulas, using money from the second year of the state's biennial budget. In the second year, they'd have to find the money in the RDF or somewhere else, or tell the schools to cover the state's share themselves. In the second case, the state would start its 2013 legislative session owing the school districts for that second year. The short form: If the state doesn't change those formulas, it is, under current law, on the hook for the money.

• Is there another way to get into the Rainy Day Fund? Sure. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, filed a late constitutional amendment — he admits it probably won't move — that would take $2 billion out of the state's Rainy Day Fund for education, pending the approval of voters. The idea, apparently, is that having voters decide would let nervous conservative legislators off the hook for a raid on the state's savings. And there's the idea of taking too much out of the fund — wink, wink — for the supplemental appropriations bill aimed at the current budget deficit. Anything left over after that deficit is covered would be available for the next budget cycle and would already be out of the accounts the Legislature's conservatives have been protecting.

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