Across the board, Texas lawmakers say funding public education is a top priority, but some are doubtful that there is enough time or money to reform the state’s school finance system this session.
“The most important priority is public education,” said Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican out of San Antonio.
Speaker Straus unveiled the House’s budget, which offers about $2.2 billion more in state funds for public education than the Senate’s budget, Wednesday.
“The system relies too heavily on local property taxes,” Straus said. “Our goal in this budget is to begin reversing that trend, reversing it by putting more dollars into the classroom.”
Texas has increasingly depended on property taxes to fund public education. Often called the “Robin Hood recapture system” the state sends money from wealthy-property districts to schools districts where property values are considered poor.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said the ‘Robin Hood’ system has saved the state billions of dollars by redistribution. “It wasn’t a bad idea, it’s simply timed out,” Seliger said.
As property values increase and tax bills grow, property-poor school districts qualify for less state aid.
That means less pressure on the state’s overall budget, but puts more pressure on local property taxpayers.
Seliger said, “Should we do something about recapture? Yeah we need to address it.”
Democrats and Republicans in both the house and senate have said school finance reforms must be addressed but some legislators say major changes might have to wait.
“We have to be very responsible in how we look at this budget, we do not have as many dollars to work with this time,” said Rep. Donna Howard.
The Austin Democrat added that education is not an area where the state should pinch pennies. “Children are our future, they are our future workforce,” Howard said. “We’re investing in the kinds of things that help our economy sustain and grow.”
The budget outlined by the Senate makes no mention of the state’s funding formulas for schools or reforms to the school finance system.
In total, the House’s budget plan is $8 billion more than what the Senate has proposed and $4 billion more than the amount of money Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar estimated would be available.
Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, hinted that the lawmakers should tap into the state’s economic stabilization fund, commonly known as the “rainy day fund.”
Darby said the state’s savings account is like “the sacred cow that seems to be untouchable,” and suggested the money might as well be stuffed in a mattress.
Howard echoed the Republican’s frustration. “This money is to be used for a purpose and the purpose is to help us through these economic downturns,” Howard said.
According to the state Comptroller, Texas’ rainy day fund headed toward a record breaking $12 billion.
Howard said a portion of the state’s rainy day fund could help Texas “weather the little storm that we are in right now as we await sunny days ahead.”
The money to balance the House’s proposed budget is in the state’s savings account but it’s not easy for legislators to access that money.
A two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate is required to tap into Texas’ rainy day fund.