After Tuesday's school finance ruling, many politicos reacted by predicting a special session next year to fix the unconstitutional school system. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans won't want to fix their unconstitutional policy unless they have to (that is, if the Texas Supreme Court affirms on appeal). That will take a little while.
But an idea popped up into the head of some state legislators: our children deserve better.
It was clear from Democrats' statements then that they didn't want to wait quite that long. They want to fix school finance this session, because even if the Supreme Court reverses Judge Dietz's adverse ruling — we can't really be proud as Texas leaders if we fund our schools in a constitutionally questionable way.
As it turns out, Democrats are moving with every asset they have to immediately bring our schools back to par. Yesterday, six state representatives sent a letter to Governor Perry asking for school finance to be declared an emergency item. Bills can be passed addressing emergency items immediately, while most bills cannot be passed until after a large chunk of session. The key argument from the letter:
You have criticized the federal government for creating a “climate of uncertainty” for business. Texas leaders should be held to no less of a standard. After cuts of last session, the public schools responsible for over five million children deserve confidence that they will be adequately funded.
Unfortunately, Rick Perry is among the Republicans in Texas who have shown an anti-education tilt, so it would shock everyone to see him declare the emergency item.
So, Democrats have two other moves up their sleeves.
First, from Yvonne Davis, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, on the caucus's behalf:
the House Democratic Leader and Democratic members announce their intent to offer an amendment to the supplemental budget. This amendment will utilize the budget surplus and restore $5.4 billion in funding to public education that was cut last session as well as pursue ways to fund education this biennium.
What's the supplemental appropriations bill? It's a bill that helps pay for things that the Texas Legislature didn't agree to pay for last session. That is, the Texas Legislature didn't think it could pay for a full 2 years of Texas government, so it used an accounting trick. So we're going to pay for the rest of the current two year cycle before we write our next budget. The problem, of course, is that Republicans don't seem to consider billions of dollars in education cuts as money that should be paid on the last budget.
The supplemental appropriations bill is important. It has to pass. And it needs 100 votes in the House. Republicans have 95. They need Democrats to support, so Democrats have a little leverage to return some money to education there. (You'd think, of course, that Democrats wouldn't need leverage; that Republicans would want to give schools their money back, too.)
Meanwhile, Representative Trey Martinez Fischer has found that the Texas House can create their own emergency items.
From the Mexican American Legislative Caucus's press release:
Today, MALC Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer called to be recognized to dissolve the House into a Committee of the Whole, in order to consider school finance reform. Chairman Martinez Fischer is recognized as an authority on the Texas House Rules. Last legislative session, he successfully bought to light procedural defects in legislation by deploying 11 of 16 points of order. Under Rule 4, Sec. 51, the Texas House has the ability to create a Committee of the Whole to consider any matter. In addition, in order to pass legislation from the Committee of the Whole within the first 60 days of the legislative session, 120 members must suspend Art. III, Sec. 5(b) of the Texas Constitution.
In the past, the Texas State Legislature has acted on issues of the upmost importance while litigation is pending. In 2009, the legislature modified the top ten percent plan (S.B. 175) while litigation that would have affected admissions to institutions of higher education was pending. Further, in 2007, the legislature acted with all due diligence to enact Jessica's law (H.B. 8) despite pending litigation on the matter.
“While members of the Leadership have held that we must wait until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of our state's school finance system, it is clear that we have the ability, within our rules, to act today,” said Chairman Martinez Fischer. “We have the opportunity to prove that education is our number one priority. There is a clear path to begin the debate of restoring education funding cuts and fixing our broken school finance system.”
The Dallas Morning News reported that Martinez Fischer's parliamentary inquiries to Speaker Straus won't be answered until Monday. But the jist is that Martinez Fischer wants to ask our state representatives if our children are worth helping immediately. It's not just on Perry: it's on everyone.
And it seems, through Martinez-Fischer's plan and the amendment coming to the supplemental appropriations bill, state representatives will have at least two opportunities to show their constituents if they think that children are worth it. Keep an eye out. With any luck, we may adequately fund our schools next week.