Shared from the 2017-08-08 Austin American Statesman eEdition

STATESMAN AT THE LEGISLATURE EDUCATION

Rainy day fund might help schools

House proposal would seek voters’ OK to steer money to education.

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Rep. Dan Huberty wants the rainy day fund to aid schools once it goes above $10 billion.

TAMIR KALIFA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Texas voters would be asked to approve ongoing spending from the state’s rainy day fund for public education and the Teacher Retirement System under proposals discussed Monday in the House Appropriations Committee.

Unlike Senate Republicans, who oppose using the $10 billion rainy day fund for items other than emergencies and one-time expenses, Texas House members are weighing several bills that would use the fund to fill gaping holes in the state’s budget.

House Joint Resolution 53 by House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would bring to voters a proposal to direct rainy day money above $10 billion to the Foundation School Program — the primary funding mechanism for public schools in Texas.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, the rainy day fund, which is formally known as the Economic Stabilization Fund and is primarily supported by oil and gas production taxes, should grow to about $11 billion by fiscal year 2019.

If the Legislature approves HJR 53, it would be on the Nov. 7 ballot.

“If we don’t have leadership in the state that wants to spend the money today, let’s go to our voters, present our case and say this is the right thing to do,” Huberty said.

He said Gov. Greg Abbott has asked the Legislature to ›ix the school funding problem by studying it first through a commission, which has been proposed in other bills. Huberty has said that the Legislature has studied it enough.

HJR 53 would work in concert with Huberty’s House Bill 21, which the House tentatively approved Friday and overwhelmingly approved in a final vote Monday.

That bill would pump $1.8 billion into the public education system through changes in the school funding formula, including increasing the base amount of money public schools get per student from $5,140 to $5,350. Doing so would lower the amount of recapture payments that property-wealthy school districts such as Austin would have to make to the state to be redistributed to property-poor districts. Recapture payments statewide are expected to be lowered by $389 million over the next two years if HB 21 is passed.

Other elements of HB 21 include boosting funding to educate students who have dyslexia and who are learning English as a second language, as well as creating a $200 million hardship grant program, primarily targeted at school districts that will lose Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction in September.

Michael Openshaw, a conservative activist from Plano, told committee members that the rainy day fund should not be used to finance ongoing expenses such as public education.

“The amount of money we may be talking about may be 1 billion this year, 0 billion the next year, 4 billion... four years later. It is not a consistent flow. Our kids are (a) consistent item and they need consistent funding for them,” he said.

Committee Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said that the rainy day fund isn’t meant to be used only for one-time expenses.

“It’s to be used for some of those critical issues that ... are definitely connected to the fact that our revenues go up and down based largely on what happens with the oil and gas revenue,” he said.

The proposal falls within one of Abbott’s 20 special session agenda items, but it’s not an idea that Abbott has publicly supported, and if it’s approved by the House, it’s likely to die in the Senate. The two chambers have tussled over how best to approach the public school ›inance system, which the Texas Supreme Court last year found was inadequate and barely constitutional.

Also Monday, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, presented HJR 52, which would transfer into the Teacher Retirement System any excess money from the rainy day fund that is higher than the state comptroller’s projections.

If the Legislature does not address the system during the special session, which will end next week, the system faces a shortfall of up to $500 million in the 2020-21 biennium. Both chambers have approved spending up to $213 million for the system, but each proposal differs on the source of funding.

Tim Lee, head of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said he is concerned that lawmakers next session would use HJR 52, if it’s passed, to supplant funding instead of supplement it.

Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said that using the rainy day fund for the retirement system is not a permanent solution.

Contact Julie Chang at 512-912-2565.

Twitter: @juliechang1

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