This Valentine’s Day the Texas House had a preliminary debate over when and how to restore school funding. In the process, some restless House members served notice that they are ready to amend any potential vehicle to restore school funding levels to where they stood before $5.4 billion was cut last session.
The skirmish was triggered when the House leadership team proposed a procedural move to keep a tight rein on an emergency spending bill, HB 10. The leadership has designed this measure strictly to cover unpaid bills for Medicaid ($4.5 billion) and a small chunk of state aid owed to school districts (about $300 million in general revenue, plus another $300 million in recaptured revenue from higher-wealth school districts). All in all, the bill uses up about $4.8 billion out of a total of $8.8 billion in unexpectedly available 2012-2013 general revenue—money left unspent because the comptroller woefully underestimated the amount of income pouring into state coffers.
HB 10 does nothing to restore state funding for schools to former levels. The bill just tops up formula funding for schools for the current fiscal year 2013 to the reduced level established by the 2011 legislature. The bill’s main purpose is to cover the huge shortfall the legislature built into the Medicaid budget deliberately in 2011, when lawmakers said they intended to come back in 2013 to use some of the Rainy Day Fund for this purpose. If they don’t pass a Medicaid spending bill in the House and Senate and secure the governor’s signature quickly, Medicaid obligations coming due from next month onward would not get paid.
As it turns out, HB 10 would leave the Rainy Day reserve untouched, even though at $11.8 billion it is projected to be nearly twice as big as when they left town in 2011. The leadership finds it politically easier to use its other big pot of revenue—the billions of dollars in general revenue unforeseen by the comptroller. Even so, HB 10 as currently designed still leaves $4 billion from that pot available for other purposes, like restoring school funding.
What galled a number of House members today was the lack of any apparent sense of urgency about the need to use at least some of that $4 billion to restore school funding. Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) made the point that school districts are formulating their budgets for the coming school year now, and it would help them plan if they knew they had more money from the state on the way. Strama stressed that a lot of students have taken or will soon take the STAAR exams, and so far the failure rates have been “staggering.” A lot of students will need remediation, he said, and districts could provide it if the state would assure them of more funding now.
House Appropriations Committee chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) replied that another supplemental spending bill coming along in four to six weeks would be the proper vehicle for what Strama wanted. Pitts said a group of House members is negotiating already over “what we can do” with that bill. But the chairman’s answer did not satisfy at least 36 House members, who voted no on the procedural rule for considering HB 10.
The bill is now set for a House floor vote on February 21, under a rule that forbids adding any funds to the total included in the bill and forbids tapping any other funding source—such as the cash-swollen Rainy Day Fund. There’s a 5 p.m. deadline next Monday for submitting proposed amendments to the bill, so we’ll know soon whether any legislative wiz has figured out a way to strike a blow for higher school funding under the tight constraints applied to HB 10.