By Peggy Fikac | April 23, 2013
AUSTIN — Public education would get more than $2 billion above what’s already been included in legislative budget proposals under a deal backed unanimously Tuesday by Texas senators, who also voted to put $4.9 billion into water and transportation.
The Texas Senate voted 31-0 for Senate Joint Resolution 1 to take $5.7 billion from the rainy day fund and put $2.9 billion into transportation, $2 billion into water and $800 million into public education.
In addition, senators said new figures showing increases in local property tax revenue would free $1.4 billion in state funds that they expect to put back into public schools.
Schools are financed through state aid, local property tax revenue and some federal money. When property values increase, yielding more local tax revenue, the state has to put less money into schools. Senators said they would put the savings realized from the last property valuation increase back into schools.
“This is going to allow us to put a substantial amount of new money into public education,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.
SJR 1 by Williams also will require approval by two-thirds of the Texas House to be placed on a statewide ballot for voter consideration. The rainy day fund is projected to have $11.8 billion at the end of this fiscal period if left untapped.
The funding would be a boost for public education, which has been a focal point of this legislative session after lawmakers two years ago cut $5.4 billion from what schools otherwise would have expected.
The cuts were made due to a projected budget shortfall in 2011, but a rebounding economy instead has given lawmakers billions more than expected.
The Senate earlier voted to put $1.5 billion more into public education as part of its overall state budget proposal. Tuesday’s action would boost that increase to $3.7 billion. Of the $800 million from the rainy day fund, $500 million would go into formulas and $300 million into a teacher merit-pay program aimed at low-performing schools.
The House has voted to increase public school funding by $2.5 billion. House budget-writers also have voted to put another $500 million into schools through a separate supplemental bill, for a total $3 billion increase.
Differences between the House and Senate budget proposals are being worked out among legislative budget negotiators.
SJR 1 also would address other needs that state leaders have called paramount — attending to neglected state water needs and finding money to relieve an increasingly congested and debt-ridden transportation system. The transportation funding would go into the state highway fund, which Williams said would replace the need for some additional borrowing, saving the state money in debt service.
Williams said while the additional transportation money would help, Texas is still in need of a reliable, robust funding mechanism for transportation into the future. He said he is concerned that one won’t be approved before the session ends.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said the proposal isn’t perfect but praised Williams for tackling urgent needs that have been put off in the past.
“What we’ve had is delay delay, delay — kicking the can down the road on water infrastructure, on highway infrastructure,” Van de Putte said. “Thank you for including the infrastructure of opportunity, which is our public education system.”
The unanimous vote came after long negotiations by senators, who gave themselves a hand at the urging of Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, for being able to forge an agreement on the important, tough issues.
“I woke up at 2:30 this morning,” Williams said, “not knowing how we were going to get this out of the ditch.”