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by AMAN BATHEJA

A small bipartisan group of House lawmakers is working on a plan to restore some of the money cut from public education in the 2011 legislative session to the state’s current two-year budget.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said that lawmakers have just under $1 billion available to spend without hitting the constitutional spending limit on the current two-year budget. He and a group of lawmakers, which includes House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, are in talks to add some of that money to a supplemental spending bill expected to reach the full House next month.

“We’re still working on it,” Pitts said Thursday.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said the discussions are looking at adding public education money both to the current budget and the next two-year budget cycle.

Any spending decisions in the House would also have to be approved by the Senate and Gov. Rick Perry.

State lawmakers are currently working through multiple appropriations bills, often called supplementals, that would add funding to the current budget cycle, which ends in August. A bipartisan agreement to add money back into public education could diffuse efforts by some House Democrats to amend one of those bills to try to restore all of the $5.4 billion lawmakers cut from public education last session. Some Republican leaders want to hold any debate on school finance for a special session in light of a recent court ruling, currently under appeal, that found the Texas school finance system unconstitutional.

Pitts is currently planning at least three bills to address supplemental spending needs in the current budget which total more than $6 billion. The first, House Bill 10, slated to reach the House floor next Thursday, is an “emergency” measure that largely pays for billions of dollars in Medicaid spending that lawmakers purposely didn’t allocate last session. Pitts has said the $4.8 billion bill must be signed by Perry by mid-March to ensure that doctors and other health care workers around the state are paid on time for their work.

This week, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a rule that will block any amendments to HB 10 that would add to the bill’s overall cost.

During debate over the rule, Pitts told lawmakers the second supplemental bill may include funding for public education. That bill is also expected to address unexpected costs related to recent wildfires and prisoner healthcare.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, urged Pitts to make clear publicly as soon as he could how much more money school districts could expect so they could properly plan to use it before the end of the fiscal year. He said many districts might use some of the funding to hire tutors for students who need to retake the STAAR end-of-course exams.

“There is time for us to make a meaningful difference in the resources available to them,” Strama said.


AMAN BATHEJA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

COVER: TEXAS TRIBUNE ILLUSTRATION

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