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Special Session Hinges on School Finance Fix

The Legislature has just a few days to get the state budget, the most important bill of the session, passed and to the governor's desk. Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune reports on the final items needed to send lawmakers home on time.

Rep. Sylvester Turner D-Houston, speaks with Sen. Steve Ogden R-Bryan during finance committee hearing on May 23rd, 2011

The Legislature has just a few days left to get the state budget, the most important bill of the session, passed and to the governor's desk.

The budget is the only bill that lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass. Failure to do so would force a special session. Senate budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said that hinges on the passage of Senate Bill 1811, which will be amended to alter the state's school finance system.

"If you marry school finance into 1811, that's fine, but you got to have a school finance bill, and you got to have a way of funding it — and 1811 is essential to that," Ogden said. "If 1811 dies, we really are in a special session."

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

A new school finance system is needed to lower the amount of money the state owes to public schools by about $4 billion. Without a change, schools would run out of money in early 2013, along with the state's Medicaid program, which was underfunded with the hope lawmakers will fill that gap in the 2013 legislative session.

"We can't kick the can down the road on both Medicaid and school finance at the same time,” Ogden said. “When I was talking to the governor today, I said I'm not leaving here with this place in worse shape than I found it."

Beyond the budget problems, thousands of other bills won't pass this session. It's up to Gov. Rick Perry to decide if any necessitate a special session. One such bill is a congressional redistricting plan, on which there's been little to no movement. This decade's re-drawing has added importance, because the state is adding four new congressional seats, and if lawmakers can't settle on district lines, a three-judge panel will.

"There's still days left in the legislative session." Perry said. "I full well expect the Legislature to do its required duties. We’re focused on a lot of different issues. Our budget process is going along. I'm very optimistic that we'll get that done, as well."

The best way to explain the chances of a special session may be this: Even with just a few days left, there's still plenty of time to get things done, but that doesn't mean they will get done.

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