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Call for House school funding debate fizzles

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Posted: Feb 11, 2013 5:40 PM

Updated: Feb 11, 2013 5:41 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) House Democrats tried to pick a fight Monday over funding for Texas' public schools, but Republicans sidestepped the issue, saying it's too early to take action amid pending legal battles.

San Antonio Democratic Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer sought to declare funding for public education an emergency matter, thus allowing the chamber to immediately hear bills on it.

Though House reconvened Jan. 8, it isn't allowed to vote on proposed legislation for its first 60 days unless they are declared emergency items. Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature can both designate items as emergencies.

But House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, explained that Martinez Fischer's attempt would unleash a lengthy and complicated process that would make it unlikely to succeed. So Martinez Fischer settled for asking the House's chief budget writer, Appropriation Committee Chairman and Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts, questions about how a future debate on school funding might shape up.

Facing a $27 billion shortfall sparked by a still-sluggish economy, the Legislature voted in 2011 to cut $5.4 billion from public schools and educational grant programs, even though the state's booming population means enrollment is growing by about 80,000 students annually.

More than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of the state's 5 million-plus public school children sued, claiming the way Texas now funds its schools violates state constitutional guarantees for an equitable and adequate educational system. The sweeping case concluded last week with District Court Judge John Dietz ruling in the districts' favor, finding the system fails to provide sufficient resources, and doesn't distribute them equally.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott can now appeal the case, either directly to the Texas Supreme Court or through a more lengthy process that could end with the state's highest court.

If the courts ultimately side with the school districts, it will be up to the Legislature to overhaul how Texas funds education. But a high court ruling isn't likely to come until 2014 meaning there's little appetite to tackle the issue in a legislative session scheduled to end in May.

With Texas' economy now booming again, many Democrats have called for at least rolling back the 2011 cuts while lawmakers wait for the court case to run its course. That was a key motivation behind Martinez Fischer's call Monday which was largely symbolic since Republicans hold a 95-55 majority in the House.

Pitts said he met with Abbott last week about restoring some of 2011 cuts "but the Attorney General reminded us that we only have a bare-bones ruling from the district judge."

"We do not have the findings or a clear direction for addressing his rulings," Pitts said.

Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Demorcat, said Monday that she could respect the House not wanting to make policy based on a preliminary ruling, but that lawmakers should "at least get us back to where we were" in terms of funding for schools.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said "it's not a Democrat or Republican issue."

But he added that with the case still in legal limbo: "I'm just wondering how you go forward with any kind of plan of any consequence or any long term solution."

Topics: Texas-School Funding Fight

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