Legislators have a deadline, and so do Texas schools

By Ross Ramsey

Texas lawmakers sweating over legislative deadlines have other clocks to watch. Most of the state’s school districts write their budgets and set their tax rates in June, and they’ll need to know the state’s plans for school finance by then.

With four weeks left in the legislative session, the components of the leadership plan for public education and property taxes are slowly slipping into place. And they’d better, if legislators expect school districts to incorporate a new public education finance system into their budget for the 2019-20 school year.

As with any legislative session, looming deadlines have sparked talk of the governor calling a special session to tackle unfinished business. But going into overtime on school finance would push school districts off their normal budget timelines. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would surely cause problems.

“It’d be a mess,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston. He’s the author of the school bill, head of the House Public Education Committee and a former school board member.

But a special session might not be necessary — and it won’t be for lack of incentives. There are the deadlines in legislators' own rules and in the needs of the state’s roughly 1,200 school districts.

School finance is difficult to pass in any legislative session and in years past has also required a prompt — or threat — from Texas courts. Lawmakers don’t have a court order over their heads this time, but Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen made school funding and property taxes the centerpiece issues of the session and are pushing for passage.

And some farsighted lawmakers think this year marks a rare chance for change. In two years, after the next national census, lawmakers will be drawing new redistricting maps in the 2021 legislative session. That’s a guarantee of the kind of partisan session in which education and property tax issues are hardest to solve. Those new maps, if history is a guide, will send a large number of new, inexperienced people to Austin in time for the 2023 session. That won’t be a great setting for big issues, either. By that reckoning, this session is the best chance for big changes to education and taxes for the next six years.

On Tuesday, the House gave initial approval to Senate Bill 2, which would require voter approval for local property tax increases of more than 3.5% — legislation that got stuck in the Senate for a couple of months before finally coming to a vote and moving on to the House. Abbott worked the House floor Tuesday morning in support of the bill before six hours of debate began.

The Senate’s Education Committee has House Bill 3, the public education and school finance legislation, under consideration. The Senate Education Committee could vote on that legislation as early as Wednesday morning. It’ll have to pass in committee and then in the full Senate before going back to the House — a sequence that has some people nervously looking at end-of-session deadlines. And the House, perhaps to encourage some action, made SB 2 contingent on HB 3 — meaning that if the education bill fails, the property tax bill dies with it.

The state budget, the blueprint for funding everything in state government, including education, is in the hands of the 10 negotiators who’ll reconcile the House and Senate versions.

Finally, legislation to ask voters to approve a one-penny increase in the sales tax in return for lower school property taxes is pending in the House Ways and Means Committee. Before voters get a look, that requires approval from 21 senators and 100 representatives — two-thirds of each chamber — and it doesn’t appear to have that kind of support right now.

Lawmakers have time to do all of this, but they have other things in their way. As of Tuesday afternoon, they had filed a total of 7,319 bills and passed 29 (that’s in addition to the 2,541 resolutions filed this session, 1,959 of which had passed), according to the Legislature’s statistics.

That’s the pile they’ll be working on while they’re trying to complete the package promised by Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen at the beginning of the session.

They have four weeks on their clock, and then they’ll face the school boards — either to deliver the relief they promised or to say they couldn’t finish this test in the time allotted.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.