The Texas House Democratic Caucus laid out a $14.5 billion plan for school finance reform and property tax relief Thursday, releasing a list of priorities in advance of a key school finance bill Republican education leaders are expected to file and support.
The Democrats' plan is composed of dozens of bills members have filed — or will file — to increase teacher pay and benefits, pay schools more for educating low-income students, and provide more counselors for school districts. It does not include two policy items that may be included in Republican-filed legislation: merit pay for teachers or paying schools more for higher student test scores.
"We hope to work with our colleagues to incorporate some of these ideas into their bills," said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the caucus.
The rollout by Democrats was met with pushback by some House leaders. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, told reporters in Austin Thursday afternoon that a reason school finance reform hasn't happened in past legislative sessions "is because partisan politics can get in the way." Bonnen said he is working with state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, to prevent that from happening this session.
"I appreciate our Democrat members who laid out their plan this morning," Bonnen said, "but we've already visited with several of them and have said we're going to do this as the Texas House. The best plan is the plan that works for Texas."
The Democrats are looking to use a combination of money from general revenue and the state's savings account to fund some of these ideas in the next budget.
The House's proposed budget includes an additional $9 billion for public education and property tax relief.
Huberty is expected to file the key school finance bill in the House this session, modeled off of a report voted out unanimously by a state-backed school finance panel in December. The panel included lawmakers from both parties, as well as educators and members of the business community.
Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said the committee has been working on bipartisan legislation for school finance and that Democrats are looking to contribute their ideas.
"We're excited to be part of that conversation because we have ideas we believe should really be part of the conversation," she said.
Some of the House Democrats' proposals dovetail with recommendations in the school finance panel's report. González filed House Bill 89, which would increase the base funding districts get per student and ensure they receive more funding for low-income students and those learning English.
A few House Democrats have filed bills that would fund full-day pre-K for all school districts, an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.
The proposal also includes $3.78 billion for teacher pay and benefits — around the same amount Senate Republican leaders have proposed in across-the-board $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers. House Democrats are championing proposals that would increase salaries for not just teachers, but also support staff, while also boosting financial support for teacher health care premiums. The exact amount of the proposed raises for each person has not yet been determined.
House Democrats also want to give homeowners tax relief by doubling the amount they can see exempted on their home to $50,000, which they say would give the average homeowner $325 in tax cuts. That bill has not yet been filed but is expected to cost $1.7 billion.
"Our plan is to ... go to homeowners with a true in-your-pocket tax cut," said Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, who is expected to file that property tax bill. He said the state should look to revoke tax exemptions and close tax loopholes in order to get sustainable revenue for education.
Cassi Pollock contributed reporting.