Posted: Feb 28, 2013 3:59 PM
Updated: Feb 28, 2013 3:59 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Two years after historic spending cuts to Texas classrooms, budget writers in the Senate on Thursday approved a $1.4 billion hike for public education in the first clear signal that the new Legislature may pour money back into financially ailing public schools.
How much lawmakers will ultimately spend on schools remains to be hammered out over the next few months. But education groups who rallied 2,000 supporters during a march on the Capitol last weekend greeted the spending bump by the Senate Finance Committee with optimism.
Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the committee chairman, called a new $40 million chunk back into a prekindergarten grant program slashed in 2011 a "down payment."
"I know that we've done a lot more in the past," Williams said. "This is important. This is very focused on at-risk kids. This is not every kid who is eligible for funding under this."
The approved budget recommendation, which includes roughly $1.4 billion more in school spending, will move to the full Senate. That addition was part of a $35 billion proposed budget for public schools.
Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson described the additional money as "significant" urged his colleagues to continue prioritizing education spending.
Two months into the new legislative session the first since Gov. Rick Perry's failed run for president education has emerged as a dominant issue at the Capitol. The future of standardized testing in Texas and charter schools has stirred major debates in addition to whether lawmakers will reverse any of the $5.4 billion in classroom cuts made during a severe state budget shortfall in 2011.
Perry made no promises to roll back any deep spending cuts to public schools or otherwise when the session began in January. That was despite a booming Texas economy that powered a sunny revenue estimate, which left lawmakers with nearly $9 billion more to spend on the current budget before writing the next one.
The additional public school spending approved Thursday by Williams' committee appeared to provide the firmest indication yet that the Legislature is open to putting money back.
LAWMAKERS HEAR MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS
In a rally at the state Capitol on Thursday, Amy Pierce talked about her descent into mental illness, her suicide attempts, the rats she could hear scurrying around a psychiatric facility at night and the counseling services that saved her life.
But mostly she talked about investment returns.
"Those services cost money up front, but now I was paying taxes, I was paying back," said Pierce, a coordinator at a treatment center near Austin. "I was learning how to live."
After years of declining financial support for mental health treatment, advocates sense an opportunity in the attention created by a series of horrific shootings. They argue that more treatment will save the state money in the long run by reducing crime, homelessness and unemployment.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Texas spends $39 per capita on mental health services every year, compared to a national average of $121. Only Idaho spends less.
Budget writers in the Senate have indicated some willingness to provide $200 million for a wide variety of increased services. But the competition for funding is intense this year as lawmakers confront looming debts.
At the rally, a crowd of about 200 carried slogans such as "It's Just FundaMental Health."
Lawmakers spoke of breaking the stigma.
Sen. John Whitmire, a powerful long-serving Democrat from Houston, said services in schools could do more than punitive measures to remedy discipline problems.
Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican from the suburbs northwest of Houston, called for programs to help inmates break the cycle of repeated arrests.
"The place for someone with a mental health issue is not jail," she said.
TEXAS HOUSE HONORS FORMER NAVY SEAL CHRIS KYLE
The Texas House has unanimously passed a resolution honoring slain former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
Waxahachie Republican Rep. Jim Pitts said Kyle, who authored the best-selling book "American Sniper," ''was clearly dedicated to the idea of putting others first."
Pitts said that in a perfect world, Kyle would not have been shot dead Feb. 2.
He said "our world is not a perfect world" but that Kyle was "trying to get us closer to that ideal."
Widow Taya Kyle was among those who gathered in front of the House. As representatives stood to formally approve the memorial resolution, she softly and briefly clapped her hands.
Iraq War veteran Eddie Ray Routh has been charged in the killings of Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a North Texas gun range.
LAWMAKERS COMPLAIN ABOUT SECURITY AT GOVERNOR'S MANSION
Texas lawmakers expressed outrage because they must submit to computerized searches for warrants before entering the governor's mansion.
House Appropriations Vice Chairman Sylvester Turner complained Thursday that as an elected official with a special identification card, he should not have to undergo the screening.
Turner said he had to wait for state troopers to run a check on him when he hosted a meeting of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus at the mansion.
Other lawmakers who also underwent similar screenings asked why the card that grants them access to the Capitol is not good enough to access the governor's mansion, which is also a public building.
Department of Public Safety Steve McCraw said he recommended that everyone who goes on to the mansion grounds must undergo a check for warrants.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"My badge isn't good enough to get me into the executive mansion, right not its 100 percent of individuals who are vetted." Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, while explaining to the House Appropriation Committee why legislators must submit to a check for arrest warrants before entering the governor's mansion.