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The Democrats’ Last Chance to Stop the Budget [Updated]

Both the House and Senate budgets make major cuts to public ed. But those cuts are only possible if they pass new school finance legislation.
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Updated May 5, 4:25 p.m. 

Don’t let the headlines fool you. While the Senate and House have both passed versions of the budget, the debate is far from over.

That’s because both budgets rely on major cuts to public education, and those cuts are contingent on new bills getting passed. If a school finance bill doesn’t pass, the budgets don’t balance.

You see, under current law, schools are entitled to a certain amount per student. Districts raise what they can with property taxes, and the state must pay for the rest. (For more on our troubled school finance system, read my March cover story.) The state can’t make good on those obligations, and for the first time in 60 years, we won’t automatically fund public schools.

When budget writers opted to cut from public schools in order to balance the budget, they knew that they would need extra legislation to change the school finance system. Otherwise, we would still owe billions to the schools, and big debts are hardly politically palatable. The House and Senate each have bills that cut the necessary amounts to schools in order to make their budgets’ respective cuts to school districts—$4 billion in the Senate and a whopping $8 billion in the House. Those bills are integral to the budgets that each chamber approved.

But as we knew back in February, these school finance bills will be hard to pass. In the House, Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg’s bill isn’t even on the calendar yet. His bill tries to shield the poorest districts from cuts by putting all districts on a formula system. But that means that those school districts that have been living high on the hog will get slashed by huge percentages. It’s certainly not going to be an easy-pass in the House.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Education Chair Florence Shapiro’s bill hasn’t yet had the votes to come to the floor, and Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill. Of course, with the fight over the Senate budget, school finance bill wasn’t the top thing on people’s minds. I asked Democratic Sens. Royce West and Judith Zaffirini whether they’d discussed their options, and both said no.

But when I asked Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, she said she was considering the implications of blocking the school finance bill. “I’m encouraging my colleagues to as well,” she said.

Still Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill, and by extension cast a harsh political blow to the budget process. Without update school finance legislation, the state would still owe billions. While the state would hand out the available money, we’d still owe the rest to districts. Conservatives have frequently said the bill pays for every school kid, leaving out that it does so by paying less for each school kid. Without the new legislation, that argument won’t even technically hold up. Big government debt isn’t traditionally popular with fiscal conservatives. By blocking the school finance bill, Democrats could effectively make the education portion of the budget a poison pill.

Of course, that’s dependent on whether or not the Senate will observe the traditional two-thirds rule. Wednesday, the Senate found a way to pass the budget without a single Democratic vote. Republican senators used a caveat in the rules that meant they did not need the two-thirds support that’s normally required to debate a bill on the floor.

Afterwards, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters that the two-thirds tradition wasn’t dead—that the budget situation was a rare exception. If Democratic senators try to block school finance legislation, we’ll see just how resuscitated the two-thirds rule really is.

Update: Just to be clear: If a school finance bill doesn’t pass, it doesn’t mean the budget is automatically void. There are various, complex provisions in law to deal with a shortage in school funding. But the budget’s columns won’t balance—by $8 billion, according to the House budget. No one is quite sure what would happen if the school-finance bill doesn’t pass, and the budget comes up $8 billion short. What we can say is that if the school finance bill fails, it will seriously disrupt the budget process and could potentially sink House Bill 1.