A Down Payment, Not a “New Normal”

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Yesterday, the Senate passed its draft budget for 2014-15. It passed overwhelmingly – 29-2. Obviously, most Democrats in the Senate voted for it. So did I.

Does that mean this session’s budget undoes the damaging budget cuts that our schools endured two years ago?

Does it mean there's a permanent solution to the school funding crisis?

Does it show that this budget makes real progress in creating honest accounting and paying down the billions in dedicated funds that have been diverted from their intended purposes over the years?

Does it mean that the state is making needed investments in Texans’ health and the Texas economy by securing more Medicaid funding?

Umm … no.

This budget passed with many Democrats’ votes for one reason: it’s a start, a down payment on the change we need to make this session.  But no one should think our work is done.

I certainly don't.

The Good News

Even if it's a long way from perfect, there’s some good stuff in this budget.

The budget was put together in a very open, inclusive way. That's not been my experience with past budgets.

A chunk of the $5.4 billion that was cut from schools in 2011 has been restored. There’s substantial, meaningful investment in mental health programs. Most state employees will get a raise – and so many of my constituents who are state employees will tell you that it's been too long since they saw one.  The state's retirement systems for former employees and teachers also will see funding increases.

(It was a remarkable moment in the Chamber yesterday when the gallery, packed with retired teachers wearing red T-shirts, burst into applause as they heard what the budget would mean to them.)

And let’s just say it: As horrendous as the budget was in 2011, when the legislature slashed $5.4 billion from Texas schools, pretty much anything that didn’t take out the state’s hard times on its kids is comparatively good news.

But we wouldn’t have been for this budget if we’d thought this was as good as it’ll get this session.

The bad news

This isn’t as good as Texas can do. It just isn’t. I love this state with all my heart, and I know that Texas can do better than this budget.

The state has been sued by most of its districts over the school finance system. A state district judge ruled more than a month ago that the system isn’t fair, isn’t adequate, and isn’t even constitutional. This legislature could – and should – have been working to craft a permanent solution to this crisis. Instead, it’s waiting on a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, as if the state might yet get off on a technicality.

The fact is that this budget doesn't offer a permanent solution to Texas' running school funding crisis. It maintains a broken, inadequate formula – asking Texas kids and families to wait for the critical investments they need and deserve. We rank 49th nationally in per pupil spending, and after you adjust for inflation, we're actually spending less money per-pupil than we were in any of the last three years.

Really, from the first day of this session, it should have been the goal of every legislator to restore the resources that were cut from our schools in 2011 and renew the state’s investment in its future. That’s still the goal, and there will still be ample opportunities to do that between now and Memorial Day. If the legislature fails to do that, this session will be remembered as a failure – as it should be.

The danger of the “New Normal”

I see the budget passed yesterday as the beginning of our work to do better by Texas and its future. What’s scary – what we need to fight – is the perception that this budget is all we need, or that it represents some sort of “New Normal.”

I worry that some legislators may consider this budget to be a new benchmark for what’s considered adequate or acceptable, even as teachers and students look for ways to do more and more with fewer resources, and Texas women, seniors and kids struggle to get health care.

Texas can, should and must do better by our schools, our kids, our people and our future – not just leave them all a little less worse off.

So this budget vote needs to set the stage for the changes we know we need: a permanent school finance solution that creates great schools, fundamental reform of the budget process, and major investments in health care, water supplies, transportation and Texas’ future.

Yesterday was a vote for progress and process. It’s going to take all of us – not just those who almost single-handedly cut $5.4 billion from our schools two years ago – to make the changes that will meet Texas’ needs, prepare its future, and lay the foundation for a 21st Century economy.

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