Opposition Holds Up Passage
of School Finance Bill
AUSTIN - A proposal to maintain funding to school districts with declining enrollment stalled in the Senate today after several senators voiced opposition to the bill because of its cost.
Senate Bill (SB) 450, authored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, would allow school districts that experience enrollment losses greater than 2 percent to receive state funding based on 98 percent of the previous year's funding. Texas schools receive funding based on their average daily attendance.
Duncan said SB 450 is intended to give school districts the time to adjust their budgets before their funding is reduced.
According to the Texas Education Agency, 525 school districts had declining enrollment numbers between 1998 and 2000. Of those, 58 percent had a two percent or greater decline. School districts lose $5,000 for each student lost.
Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan objected to the bill because he said it would cost $25 million a year, money he said Texas cannot afford this budget cycle.
"There's only so much money that we have this session," Truan said, citing Medicaid expansion, teacher and school employee health insurance and pay raises for prison guards and other state employees as expensive items the state needs to address in the coming budget.
Truan was the most vocal opponent of SB 450, but several others joined him, including Senate Finance Committee Chair Rodney Ellis of Houston and Vice-Chair Chris Harris of Arlington, both of whom voted against bringing the bill up for consideration.
Truan blamed tax cuts passed by the Legislature in 1997 and 1999 for the current tight budget.
"Let's face it, we made a mistake two years ago and four years ago," Truan said, adding that the cuts amounted to too little for individual Texans.
"And now we're having to face the music, and we were left holding the bag, the State of Texas, in the rush to give the governor, who's now the president, the tax relief, the tax cuts."
Duncan agreed to leave the bill pending so an amendment could be added that would make it more budget-friendly by delaying its implementation until funding is found.
Another controversial measure, the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 249, authored by Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., was passed by the Senate today.
The bill would increase the members of the Texas Transportation Commission from three to five.
Duncan opposed the bill because he said it would dilute the strength of Texas' rural areas on the board. Under the board's current composition, at least one member must live in a rural area.
An amendment offered by Duncan that stipulates that one of the new members must be from a rural area was added to the bill, but not without several senators questioning the need, citing demographics indicating that Texas is becoming a more urban state.
Some senators, led by Dallas Sen. David Cain, questioned whether there is even a need to increase the number of board members. But others voiced strong support for the proposal, including Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos who said the increased membership represented a chance to add minority members.
"I really think it should be larger so the commission can look like Texas," Gallegos said.
A bill that sparked a lengthy debate yesterday was passed today. CSSB 974 would require high school students to take the state-recommended curriculum to be eligible for a program that grants automatic admission to state colleges and universities for the top 10 percent of each school's graduating class.
The senators who opposed CSSB 974 yesterday continued today. Senators Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, Gallegos, Truan and Royce West of Dallas voted against the bill's passage.
The bill's author, San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth, said it was a matter of fairness, because students who are competing for automatic admission and state grant money should take comparable classes.
Texas high school students can choose from three curriculum tracks: a basic curriculum that does not include any college prep courses, a college prep curriculum that is the state-recommended track and an advanced college prep track.
In other news, the House of Representatives approved the conference committee report on CSSB 3. The bill, authored by Duncan, would establish procedures for the preservation and use of DNA evidence and post-conviction DNA testing. CSSB 3 will now go to Governor Rick Perry, who declared the bill an emergency early in the session.
The Senate stands adjourned until 10 a.m. Wednesday.