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Pitts and Williams Say School Funding Debate Can Wait

Ongoing school finance litigation will likely prevent the Legislature from discussing education funding issues this session, two Republican budget leaders said at a TribLive event Thursday.

TribLive at the Austin Club featuring State Sen. Tommy Williams and State Rep. Jim Pitts on financial issues facing the 83rd Texas Legislature.

Talk of restoring $5.4 billion in education cuts made in 2011 won’t get much attention this session, the Legislature’s top budget leaders said Thursday morning.

In a forum with Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said that they do not believe the state has underfunded public education and that funding levels won’t be examined again until a special session, likely in 2014. Williams is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. House Speaker Joe Straus reappointed Pitts to another session as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

Both lawmakers cited ongoing school finance litigation as the reason school funding won't be adjusted this session.

“We’ve grown a little cottage industry here in Austin to sue the Legislature over school finance,” Williams said. He accused attorneys involved in the lawsuit of “egging” the districts on.

Both Pitts and Williams said teacher layoffs that many had predicted following last session’s cuts have not been as widespread as expected.

“I don’t think that we have underfunded education,” Pitts said. “I think we were able to give a basic education to all of our students.”

Williams added, "I’ve had some superintendents from very large school districts say, ‘Thank you, I never could have fired these administrators unless you cut my funding.’”

Williams also spoke about lawmakers setting aside $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion this session in anticipation of a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court that the state needs to put more money in public schools. Pitts declined to offer his estimate of how much should be socked away.

Williams called the current school funding formula “ridiculously complicated” and said that simplifying it would be a major goal of a potential special session on school finance.

“I think we’re looking at least, in my part, an epic battle on this in 2014,” Williams said.

Pitts said the school finance litigation creates a "looming IOU" that makes him wary of passing tax relief this session, even though Gov. Rick Perry and others have called for it.

“I don’t want to tell all these Texans that we’re going to do tax relief when we have all these expenses to cover,” Pitts said.

The pair also spoke about tapping perhaps $4 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for water and transportation projects, more than the $3.7 billion Perry discussed in his State of the State speech on Tuesday.

Williams said he favors using $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects. Pitts said he would support accessing $1.5 billion to $2 billion for such projects.

On transportation, Williams said he’s willing to commit $2 billion to $3 billion from the fund. Pitts said he would take $2 billion out of the fund for roads.

Both lawmakers said they were unsure whether they had the two-thirds vote needed in each of the chambers to tap any of the Rainy Day Fund. Also at issue is whether spending from the fund will count against the state’s constitutional spending cap. It could be difficult to get a majority of lawmakers in both chamber to agree to bust that cap. Both Williams and Pitts said they hoped spending from the fund would not be subject to the cap, but they are waiting on lawyers and other experts to weigh in.

“We’re going to run out of room under the spending cap before we run out of money,” Williams said. “I think that’s pretty clear.”

On health care, Williams expressed support for Perry’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act as a negotiating position to leverage the federal government to provide the money to Texas with fewer strings attached.

Williams also said he may support the Legislature passing yet another budget that intentionally underfunds Medicaid. In the 2011 session, lawmakers funded Medicaid for 18 months of the 24-month budget. The rest of the funding will be paid in a supplemental budget that will be approved this session. That approach forced some cost savings in Medicaid, Williams said.

“There is some value in just keeping the pressure on this, the squeeze,” Williams said. “If we appropriate it, they will spend it.”

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