By Peggy Fikac April 27, 2013
AUSTIN – In another sign of lawmakers’ determination to restore some of the massive cuts in education funding two years ago, the Texas House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a supplemental budget bill that would speed $500 million to public schools this fiscal year.
The additional money would come on top of an increase of at least $2.5 billion in education spending proposed for the next two years.
The Legislature cut $5.4 billion in public education funding in 2011, in the face of a projected revenue shortfall. An economic rebound, however, has put billions of extra dollars at lawmakers’ disposal, allowing them to fill holes they dug in the last session.
House Bill 1025 now goes to the Texas Senate, which already has voted to send $3.7 billion more to schools in the next two years. Differences in proposed spending will be worked out in budget negotiations between the House and Senate.
“The state’s economic prosperity allows us to provide these additional funds for the continued improvement of education programs serving Texas children,” said Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who authored the supplemental spending bill.
Pitts was visibly relieved after the 128-10 vote for the measure which, in addition to allocating more money for public schools, would address other state needs, including some lingering bills related to wildfires.
The wildfire-related needs would get $174.1 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund under the bill. It is the only provision to be paid through that savings account rather than other state funds.
The bill also would allocate $110 million to help repair roads damaged by heavy equipment and increased traffic sparked by the shale gas boom; provide $30 million to help higher education institutions with financial assistance to veterans and their families; and put a priority on $2 million in disaster recovery for West in the wake of last week’s fertilizer plant explosion.
Talmadge Heflin, of the limited-government Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has close ties to Gov. Rick Perry, had put out a statement before the vote saying the bill “goes far beyond justifiable expenditure of taxpayer money.”
Heflin, a former Houston lawmaker who served as Appropriations chairman, said the only money necessary in the bill was $174.1 million to pay for expenses related to wildfires. His statement was issued before the money was added for West and road repair through amendments.
The lopsided vote for the bill, despite the foundation’s opposition, was in stark contrast to House action during a debate earlier this month. After the foundation opposed an amendment related to the politically sensitive issue of covering more uninsured people under the federal health-care law, the provision was removed from the bill.
Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said Friday’s debate and vote made clear that the bill contained items involving the priorities of lawmakers.
“It appears to me that the membership of the Texas House realizes there’s a difference between campaigning and governing. It’s easy to campaign on slogans and whatever you want to say as far as being opposed to anything or everything,” he said. “When it is time to govern, you have to pay the bills you incur if you truly want to be a responsible steward of the taxpayer.”
As for the emphasis on education, Menendez said the results of the cuts pushed through by the GOP-dominated Legislature in 2011, have been evident. He noted that a school district may be a rural community’s largest employer.
“The town feels it,” he said. “You are going to be sensitive when you are going to church or going to the grocery store, and the person who used to work at the school is no longer employed because of the cut you made. And what sounds worse is that it was unnecessary” because revenues were stronger than expected.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there seems to be a rush to right the wrongs we did last session.”
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