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School Finance Lawsuits Give Lawmakers an Out

The courts aren't expected to finish their work on school finance until after the regular legislative session, giving lawmakers an excuse for leaving some expensive work incomplete for now.

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While the courts hold a big piece of the state budget hostage, they are also clearing the way for other issues to dominate next year’s legislative session.

The state is being sued over its financing for public schools. This is a periodic event driven by the cleverness of school administrators and others who, over time, figure out how to make the most of financing formulas. Gradually, the system goes out of balance, and the losers — the school districts that don’t get as much money — sue to level things out.

The lawsuits now pending in state court — testimony started in October, and the trial will resume next month after a holiday break — put a big chunk of the state budget on hold. Legislators will still budget the money to pay for schools, but they are unlikely to make any big changes until they know the outcome.

That could take a while; after the state court is done, the Texas Supreme Court is expected to get the case, and a high court ruling during the legislative session would come as a surprise to most lawmakers. They expect a summer decision.

That’s bad timing for supplicants looking for money for big stuff — water, roads, schools, what have you. Budget writers are always looking for gentle denials. It’s hard to just say no, especially when there appears to be plenty of money available.

The lawsuits create an out, and a legitimate out at that. Lawmakers can say they don’t know what amount the school suits will cost the state, if anything, and that they don’t want to commit to any major spending until that uncertainty has been erased.

That won’t stop lawmakers who are already talking about the state’s drought and about a water plan that isn’t backed with real money. Lawmakers don’t have $53 billion hidden in a wall safe to cover the current state water plan — even if it’s the right plan for the state, which is in question.

People like Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are talking about water financing, including ideas from a fee on water bills to taking money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Neither notion would produce all the money that is needed.

The dedicated financing sources for the state’s roads no longer fully cover the costs of maintaining existing roads. Voters and lawmakers are paying attention to that, too, but the money is the thing.

The regular list of budget needs is stout enough without those big-ticket items. Schools, for instance, are growing in cost and population in ways that have to be addressed no matter what happens in court. Health and human services programs continue to balloon. The persistently expensive and growing programs and services that drive the budget debate every two years haven’t gone away.

There is plenty of time to discuss paying for those programs during the session, which starts in just a couple of weeks. And no politician worth the title is going to waste news conferences on it now.

Instead, they’re getting attention with proposals for school choice, changes in gun laws, restrictions on abortions and other laws they will pursue between now and the end of May.

The big stuff is still the big stuff, but it has unappealing attributes: infrastructure and finance are boring. Voters aren’t motivated, most of the time, by long-term planning of roads and water, and officeholders don’t like ending conversations about programs and services with talk of the big price tags.

Thanks to the school lawsuits, they don’t have to.

A special session next year — after the courts are finished with the school finance lawsuits — can deal with the money problems in a more controlled environment. The content of special sessions, unlike that of regular sessions, is limited.

Now is the time for legislators to try and do whatever they promised to do in the elections or are reacting to in the news — to enhance school choice, to debate abortion law, to decide what gun laws should change in the wake of the latest shootings.

They would rather not talk about the pricey problems right now. And because the courts aren’t finished with schools, they don’t have to.

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