Fort Worth senator kills Texas school finance bill

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by APRIL CASTRO and JIM VERTUNO

Associated Press

Posted on May 29, 2011 at 7:25 PM

Updated Monday, May 30 at 11:42 AM

AUSTIN (AP) — A Democratic senator blocked key school funding legislation early Monday, and likely put the Texas Legislature into overtime, by using a filibuster to kill a plan that would have allowed the state to pay public schools $4 billion less than what they're owed under current law.

Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth started speaking around 10:45 p.m. Sunday and talked until midnight, which caused the bill to fail on a midnight deadline without a vote. Gov. Rick Perry had warned lawmakers earlier Sunday that if the bill died, he would call them into special session Tuesday. The regular session ends Monday.

"We are failing our school children," Davis said at the beginning of her remarks, then later began reading letters from constituents — students, parent and teachers — much like actor Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Republicans could do little to stop the maneuver. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the Senate has one last chance to pass the bill, but Senate rules require 25 of the 31 members to vote to take up a bill on the final day of the session. Several Democrats predicted such a result would be unlikely. Republicans hold a 19-12 majority in the Senate.

After the bill failed and the Senate adjourned for the night, Davis walked out of the chamber in tears.

Dewhurst, a Republican, said Davis' filibuster will be viewed as "silly" and called it a "decision of one senator to kill the bill, someone who has never been in support of it."

Davis and other Democrats said the bill would hurt schools in the future by not requiring the state to cover funding losses when local property values decline.

The bill's failure put a messy end on a contentious legislative session dominated by emotional battles over a massive budget shortfall. On Saturday, lawmakers in the House and Senate approved a budget that slashed billions of dollars in funding to public schools, higher education and health care services.

Republicans said the cuts were tough but necessary.

"Public education in Texas is not going to die," said Rep. Rob Eissler, the House public education leader, defending the school funding compromise he helped forge.

The school finance measure debated Sunday was part of a sweeping bill to make $3.2 billion available to balance the 2012-2013 budget amid a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall.

The school finance bill would change distribution formulas to public schools so the state could legally give schools less money under the new budget. It would spread the $4 billion shortfall over the two years of the budget period — 6 percent across-the-board cuts in 2012 and $2 billion in targeted funding levels in 2013.

"It is wrong to treat children differently," said Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat. "If there's ever a place for equity, it should be in how we treat children, how the government treats children. How can you justify having school districts that are on the low end of the school finance spectrum, financing more of the cut?"

Critics also said the bill could hurt schools in the future by eliminating a requirement that the state close funding gaps that may be caused by dips in local property values. Democrats have fought to use more money from the almost $10 billion reserve fund to help pay for public schools.

The measure also pushed a state payment to school districts into the next budget period. That would make an estimated $2.3 billion available for spending.

The measure was approved hours earlier in the House, largely along a party-line vote in the Republican-controlled chamber.

"I am so angry for what you're doing," Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner said then, arguing that lawmakers should have had more time to review the impact on their school districts. "And parents and Texas voters are even more angry."

The legislation also extends a tax exemption for small businesses.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said other unfinished business could be put on the agenda for a special session. This session's unfinished business includes an immigration enforcement measure, which Perry had declared an emergency.

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Associated Press writer Paul Weber contributed to this report.

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