SJR 1 is a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) that would provide billions of dollars for water and highway projects from the state’s Rainy Day Fund reserve. After hours of back-room negotiating today, Williams agreed to an amendment that would draw $800 million from the Rainy Day Fund for public schools. Some $500 million would go into formula funding for school districts. Another $300 million would be reserved for grants to school districts for merit pay under the District Awards for Teacher Excellence program that was all but wiped out by budget cuts last session.
The Senate still would not restore the full amount of the $5.4 billion cut from public education in 2011. By our reckoning, the Senate is still about $3 billion short of the state dollars needed. (Sen. Williams would tell you that $1.4 billion in higher local school property-tax collections due to rising property values also should be counted as part of the state’s effort to make up for the cuts, but that doesn’t sound much like state effort to us.
Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) offered an amendment to boost the funding for education in SJR 1 to $2 billion, with like amounts for water and highways. But that proposal went down on a vote of 12 for, 19 against. The constitutional amendment as passed by the Senate therefore provides $4.9 billion for water and highway projects versus $800 million for public schools.
Sen. Wendy Davis offered an amendment to fix the other big flaw in the Williams proposal—his insistence on spending $300 million on a merit-pay scheme without first restoring fully the formula aid for school districts’ basic operations. Her amendment, too, went down to defeat by the same 12-to-19 margin.
The Williams proposal now goes to the Texas House. Because constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of each chamber to pass, the Democratic minority of 55 out of 150 House members has some potential leverage to secure more funding for public schools under SJR 1. Higher funding for schools also already has drawn more support among House Republicans than among their Senate counterparts.
The most important thing about today’s Senate action is that the Senate majority for the first time felt compelled to tap the Rainy Day Fund for education. The issue now is no longer whether but how much. Upcoming Hotlines will keep you informed and arm you with tools you will need to keep moving this discussion in the right direction.