Texas House, Senate play ‘cat and mouse’ on school funding, retirees’ health care | Texas Legislature

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers were deciding late Sunday whether to add about a half-billion more for public schools, ease a looming hit to retired teachers’ pocketbooks on health care and create a blue-ribbon panel to study school finance.

With the clock ticking on a special legislative session, the Senate’s top budget writer and chief education policy writer said they’re willing to raise their chamber’s offer on school funding — $311 million over two years.

But Flower Mound Sen. Jane Nelson and Friendswood Sen. Larry Taylor, both Republicans, said House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies should expect not a half a loaf — something closer to one-third.

“Some of us have extreme discomfort with the $1.8 billion that the House has proposed,” Nelson said as her Finance panel rewrote a House-passed school-funding bill, to put the Senate in a position to act quickly.

That would only happen, though, if last-minute negotiations between Taylor and his House counterpart, Kingwood GOP Rep. Dan Huberty, succeeded, she and others said.

The House, meanwhile, was holding back on passing a top priority bill for the Senate — creating a school finance study commission — until it saw if the Senate yielded any ground on Straus’ drive to add more state money for schools immediately as a way to kick-start a funding overhaul.

Retired teachers and other retired school district employees watched nervously because the fate of a $212 million reduction of their looming increases in health insurance premiums, deductibles and other cost sharing has become intertwined with the school-money jockeying.

Nelson said the Senate would stand firm on what lawmakers could spend — no more than $800 million. It would come from delaying state payments to Medicaid managed care organizations. Senators adamantly oppose the House’s idea of wringing $1.9 billion of budget “headroom” through a one-month delay of state school payments, she said.

Taylor confirmed he’s considering more money for schools to educate dyslexic and bilingual students. Some school groups estimate those changes could add between $230 million and $250 million to the bill’s cost.

“There’s potentially an autism grant,” Taylor said, without elaborating.

But the House opposes the Senate’s plan to give $60 million more to charter schools.

Tense talks

The negotiations could fall apart over any of a host of sensitive matters — such as if the Senate insists on money for charters or balks at passing the study commission. It is seen by some House members as unneeded and by others, as a platform for a renewed push by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for school vouchers.

As the Senate prepared for its evening session, the head of the chamber’s Democratic caucus described a staring contest.

Sen. José R. Rodríguez of El Paso said the Senate wants to see what the House does. And vice versa with the House, which was to convene nearly three hours after the House, he noted.

“We’ll sit around and see what the House does,” Rodríguez said. “We’re in the cat and mouse stage.”

Reinforcing his point, the Senate took breaks and held closed-door meetings – known as a “caucus of the whole.” After one delay, Nelson gathered her committee, which unanimously approved the $311 million, bare-bones school funding bill. Senators effectively pushed back their floor session so they could watch how the House handled its proposed study commission.

Earlier, members of budget-writing Senate Finance discussed Taylor’s and Nelson’s talks with the House.

Little for urban schools

Dallas Democrat Royce West complained that under Senate’s slimmed-down version of school finance, districts with more than 25,000 students would get no new money.

“Frankly, this bill does nothing for urban school districts,” he said.

Taylor responded that Irving and Grand Prairie districts were among urban districts with relatively low property wealth that would get additional facilities funding — $2.1 million and $1.2 million, respectively. DeSoto, Duncanville, Lancaster and Mesquite each would receive between $500,000 and $1 million, according to computer “runs” given to West.

But urban districts say they need much more. Almost half of the Senate’s proposed new school spending — $150 million — would go to mostly small and rural districts as “hardship grants.” They’d go to some of the districts, such as Prosper in Collin County, that are scheduled on Sept. 1 to lose Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction. In 2006, they received the money as a guarantee they wouldn’t lose money from property-tax rate cuts passed by lawmakers.

The Senate’s version also would give charters $60 million, add $60 million of construction financing for low-wealth districts and apply $41 million to start eliminating a penalty in funding formulas for small districts — those under 300 square miles and with fewer than 1,600 students.

The House’s $1.8 billion plan would do some of the same things. But it also would begin repealing outdated formula “weights.” It would increase the “basic allotment” to $5,350 per pupil, from $5,140. And it would add formula funding to cover career and technology education for eighth-graders and students of all ages with dyslexia or who are learning English.

Nelson acknowledged that one provision in her separate bill about teachers — a proposed one-time longevity bonus next year of either $600 or $1,000 — is dead for the special session. She threw shade on the House, saying it took out the bonuses.

West noted that if senators would accept the House’s version, districts could use money from the increase in the basic allotment to pay teachers more.

Distrusting districts

North Richland Hills GOP Sen. Kelly Hancock, though, said he doesn’t trust districts to get the extra money to the wallets of classroom teachers.

“If you would share with us the amount of money that actually makes it to the classroom out of the basic allotment, the percentage,” he told West. “That’s where your problem is.”

The remaining part of Nelson’s teacher bill includes the $212 million for the Teacher Retirement System’s health plan, called TRS-Care. The plan is insolvent. But drastic changes that lawmakers approved in this year’s regular session have forced active teachers to delay their retirements and forced some retirees to return to work or borrow to cover higher out of pocket expenses that are scheduled to begin Jan. 1.

Tim Lee of the Texas Retired Teachers Association said his 82,000 members are frustrated.

“To end this session without passing relief on to retired teachers’ health care would be a major missed opportunity,” he said. Retirees probably would be “unable to accept that everyone wanted to help and help did not come,” Lee said.


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