The Dallas Morning News

Here’s how Texas lawmakers are planning to spend billions to improve schools

by Robert T. Garrett, Austin Bureau chief | January 16, 2019

The House and Senate revealed different priorities in the tentative state budgets their GOP leaders unveiled this week.

Here are the highlights:

Education is Job One

The House showed a little more generosity toward public schools, adding $9 billion of new general-purpose state revenue, above what funding formulas in current law would require.

But the House wrote a blank check — with the details to be filled in later.

Its starting point budget has a provision telling the Texas Education Agency to spend the new money only if lawmakers pass a school-finance and property-tax overhaul bill this session. The funds could go for increasing the basic allotment and beefing up early childhood programs, special education and teacher pay, the House provision said.

If the House’s version passed, state support of the main public school fund would climb to $42 billion over two years, an increase of $7.4 billion over the current cycle.

The Senate directed its proposed infusion of new cash for schools, $6 billion, to specific ends.

Its budget would provide a $5,000, across-the-board teacher pay raise, at a cost of $3.7 billion. And senators would provide enough money to districts — $2.3 billion — to ensure no upward creep in “Robin Hood” wealth-transfer payments from school property taxes over the next two years.

Retired teachers’ health care

Both chambers’ tentative budgets for 2020-2021 would add $231 million above what the law requires so retired teachers’ health care benefits this year won’t shrink in the next cycle. Nor would their premiums increase.

However, the House would take that money out of the state’s “rainy day fund,” which has about $12 billion and is expected to swell to $15.4 billion by late 2021.

The Senate would use general-fund money.

A Senate shift on using rainy-day dollars?

Senators may scoff at the House’s use of rainy-day money on retired teacher health care, a recurring expense. The House always wants to spend more of that stash.

The Senate is led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who in past sessions has championed the tea-party line that the rainy day fund should be sparingly used, if at all.

But the arguments are evolving — and the Senate’s tight fist loosening a bit. That could bode well for the two chambers’ ability to hash out a budget deal in May.

On Tuesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed a supplemental spending bill to patch holes in the budget lawmakers passed last session.

It would spend $2.5 billion in rainy-day dollars. Only about $1.1 billion of that would defray Hurricane Harvey’s costs to the state, mostly for school districts’ reduced enrollments and shrunken tax bases. Call it $1.2 billion, if you count replenishing Gov. Greg Abbott’s $100 million disaster-relief fund, which he emptied.

Repairs of state mental hospitals would receive $300 million of rainy-day dollars; and $100 million would go toward the “hardening” of public schools after the Santa Fe High gun massacre.

The rest of the $2.5 billion would go to make a one-time dent in the unfunded pension liabilities of the Teacher Retirement System and the Employee Retirement System — $300 million each, this year — and to a guaranteed tuition savings fund, Texas Tomorrow, that would get $211 million.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, hasn’t filed his supplemental bill. But it is expected to tap the rainy day fund heavily. His and Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s proposed budget for the next cycle already would spend $633 million from the fund.


On the big stuff, negligible differences

House vs. Senate: Big stuff

On most of the big-ticket items and other high-profile issues this session, the two chambers weren’t far apart.
Topic House Senate
School safety $109.4 million $100 million (entirely mental health, not counting the new metal detectors and exits paid for with rainy-day dollars)
Medicaid $25.2 billion of general revenue Same (both chambers covered enrollment growth but not cost growth, which is their habit)
Border security $783 million (nixed cash for new helicopters, vehicles) $803 million

This article was originally published by The Dallas Morning News and FWD>DFW had no influence on the content created.

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