Texas Legislature OKs $4 billion in education cuts

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by JIM VERTUNO and CHRIS TOMLINSON

Associated Press

Posted on June 28, 2011 at 5:45 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 29 at 1:08 AM

AUSTIN (AP) — The Texas Legislature on Tuesday approved a budget bill that cuts $4 billion from public schools and legislation to reform the state's hurricane insurance association.

After the votes, the Senate called it quits on the 30-day special session a day before Wednesday's deadline. House lawmakers planned to meet Wednesday morning for a last-ditch attempt to pass a bill criminalizing invasive body searches by airport security officers.

One bill that Gov. Rick Perry wanted approved concerning tougher immigration law enforcement was set to fail without a final vote in the House.

Perry, who is considering a run for president, called lawmakers into the special session primarily to deal with the budget and hurricane insurance bills. The education cuts bill was deemed necessary to balance the state budget.

Democrats, however, warned the cuts go too deep and could lead local districts to fire or furlough thousands of teachers and school staff and raise property taxes to make up the difference.

Lawmakers also passed cost-savings bills that would allow school districts to furlough teachers, change how school materials are purchased and expand Medicaid managed care to the Rio Grande Valley.

Democrats had resisted the school cuts while the state left an estimated $10 billion in reserve funds untouched. They killed the cuts in the final hours of the regular session in May, prompting Perry to immediately call lawmakers back into special session.

The measure approved Tuesday changes distribution formulas for public schools to allow the state to give school districts less money than current law. It spreads the $4 billion cut over two years — 6 percent across-the-board cuts in 2012 and $2 billion in targeted cuts in 2013.

Republicans say the school cuts and others in a state budget that slashed $15 billion were necessary to avoid raising taxes. Supporters argue that school districts are bloated in administrative salaries and costs and could spend some of that money in the classroom.

The bill didn't pass without a fight and reluctant vote from some Republicans.

Republicans representing rural districts briefly joined Democrats in a vote against the bill that threatened to kill it and force another special session. The GOP holds a 101-49 House majority and Republicans withdrew behind closed doors for about an hour before emerging with a deal to support the bill

"It is a tough vote," acknowledged Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford who changed his vote to support the bill after the meeting.

Critics note the cuts and formula won't cover the cost of projected enrollment growth of new students in one of the fastest-growing states in the country. They also predict that local school districts will raise taxes to offset the cuts.

"We cannot continue to ignore the gaping cracks we have hammered into the Texas education pipeline," said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

The windstorm insurance bill tackles reforms at the agency known as TWIA, which provides property and business coverage in 14 coastal counties and part of Harris County.

Following Hurricane Ike in 2008 there were numerous allegations of collusion between claims adjusters and the association. More than 1,900 policyholders sued the association for failing to pay for legitimate damages.

Perry and lawsuit reform groups have said TWIA has been a get-rich target for plaintiffs' attorneys and wanted to sharply reduce how much claimants could win in court.

The bill allows policy holders to sue for their claims and collect double damages, but only if they meet strict new standards to prove that TWIA intentionally denied a legitimate claim.

Claimants would first be required to enter mediation to resolve the dispute, but then could pursue their case in court if not satisfied with the mediated outcome. Policyholders could also agree to enter binding arbitration in return for a discount on their rates.

The Texas Trials Lawyers Association criticized the bill as stacking the deck in favor of the agency over policy holders.

The immigration enforcement measure faced intense opposition from Hispanic Democrats, who called it racist and a tool to harass Latinos.

The bill pushed by Perry and tea party conservatives would have required local law enforcement to allow officers to ask anyone they detain about their citizenship status. Currently many police chiefs and sheriffs discourage their officers from asking about someone's immigration status unless they are arrested and taken to a county jail.

The so-called "sanctuary cities" legislation would have taken away state funds for departments that have those internal policies.

Perry said police needed the bill to help prevent crime by illegal immigrants and possible terrorists.

The bill's failure "will not provide our peace officers with the discretion they need to adequately keep Texans safe from those that would do them harm," Perry said.

But police chiefs, sheriffs and business leaders opposed the measure and worked hard to kill it. The bill put mainstream Republicans in a difficult position considering the growing Hispanic electorate and efforts to recruit minorities into the Republican Party.

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