The Possible Reincarnation of School Finance Plans

With conference committees still meeting and a midnight deadline looming, lawmakers still have a few options for passing school finance plans.
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When Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, took the mike late Monday night, he knew he was beat. He began thanking his colleagues for their work on Senate Bill 1581, a technical fiscal matters bill that had become the central vehicle for school finance amendments. He told his colleagues that he hoped the House would one day approach school finance holistically, rather than simply looking at “runs”—projections of how much individual school districts gain or lose. “At some point, I hope this body will find good policy, not just runs,” he said.

Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, apparently wasn’t moved. The moment Aycock was done talking, she raised a point of order, which was soon sustained. SB 1581 was dead for all intents and purposes, leaving members to wonder just if and how they can pass a school finance bill this session. If they cannot, there will almost undoubtedly be a special session this summer for lawmakers to determine just how the unprecedented $4 billion in cuts to school district funding will be distributed. (As I’ve written before, a special session may well be a good outcome for the Democrats.) Members may even try to attach the bill as an amendment to one of the Senate education bills coming up Tuesday—the last day to pass Senate bills in the House.

House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, has the plan that’s rumored to curry the most favor with House leadership. Rather than dealing with any of the serious flaws and inequalities in the current system, Eissler’s plan simply takes six percent of funding away from each district, no matter how rich or poor. At one Public Education Committee meeting Friday night, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, told everyone that Eissler’s plan was “the” plan.

While Hochberg has a different, competing plan, many expect that the Eissler plan will move forward, most likely by getting attached to Senate Bill 1811. SB 1811 is a different fiscal matters bill that’s already through the House and Senate and currently being negotiated in a conference committee. If the conference committee members agree, they can go “outside the bounds,” and include Eissler’s school finance plan, even if it was not in either chamber’s version of SB 1811. As he was leaving, Aycock said that was his expectation or “my best guess anyways.” 

But that’s a risky move. SB 1811 is a “must-pass” bill for the budget. Largely using accounting tricks and delayed payments, it frees up billions of dollars that budget negotiators are assuming they have. Sticking school finance to the bill is a risky move—once the bill returns from conference, members can only vote up or down on the entire bill. That means, if school finance was attached, members would be voting on measures that never were debated on the floor. If members disliked the plan enough—and a majority of members were to vote against the bill—it would also ruin the budget deal. 

It’s not the only option. Eissler said he also has his eyes on a Senate bill tomorrow which he could amend to include his school finance plan. “There are always other options,” he said. “There are many twists and turns.” While he declined to say which bill he was considering amending, Eissler can only attach a school finance amendment to a bill dealing with similar topics. Tomorrow’s calendar, the last one to include major Senate bills, has several education bills.

With less than a week left in the legislative session, anything that passes will probably be a rushed job. And if members do wind up attaching a plan to SB 1811, that will mean that members have no options to debate the measure or change it in any way.

A few hours before his bill was killed, Aycock stood on the dais to postpone the measure and field questions from concerned members. “We’re taking a lot of steps in faith here,” said Republican Rep. Jim Keffer. “There’s no clear pathway” on school finance.

Aycock concurred. “We need to be very cautious,” he said. ”We cannot make mistakes at this point without dire consequences.” But if the lawmakers want to pass a school finance bill, they’re going to have to rush and make quick decisions about one of the most complicated systems in the state.