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School Finance Train Derails in Texas House by 69-77 Vote

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX – The HB 1 train speeding through the Texas House came to a screeching halt after nearly five hours of debate Tuesday when the bill failed passage to third reading by a 69-77 vote. Even a parliamentary maneuver that cut off debate and the further offering of amendments could not keep this train on the tracks.

Gov. Rick Perry had reserved a seat on the train that he thought was about to pull into the station, praising the House members for their efforts to find common ground for a bill that he expected to clear the House.

Perry said the House plan laid out earlier today "actually moves closer to my plan and, even more importantly, moves the process and debate further."

The "process and debate" stopped when the train derailed.

And when the carnage was removed from the track, little was left except Rep. Steve Wolens' (D-Dallas) motion to reconsider the vote by which the bill failed passage and to recommit the bill to the Select Committee on Public School Finance, hoping for a "do-over."

House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) made no ruling on the motion and announced the House would stand at ease until 6 p.m.

The plan laid out earlier today by Grusendorf was stripped of two of its major funding sources - video lottery terminals (VLTs) and a proposed payroll tax - by an amendment from the bill's author Rep. Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington). The payroll tax provision was removed after Perry warned legislators on Monday that such a tax would risk jobs coming to and staying in Texas.

After several hours of debate on Grusendorf's proposed amendment, and amendments to the amendment, Rep. Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston) moved the previous question, forcing the end of debate on the Grusendorf amendment and cutting off any further amendments to the amendment.

Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) offered a motion to extend the debate time on the amendment. "Mr. Heflin moved the previous question because he wanted to move the process along," said Wolens. "If we vote to cut off debate, the process will become a sham.

"We all have an equal voice and each vote equals the other persons' vote. This is a huge bill. A lot of people have not been heard." Wolens said many members campaigned for election or re-election to House seats saying they would change the state's school finance plan. He asked why there could be no debate on an amendment that he saw for the first time this morning and on a bill that is more than 300 pages that he saw for the first time yesterday.

"You can't cut off after two hours of debate when you kept me here for three months for redistricting."

"I thought what we came down here for was important," said Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston). He said he was under the impression that the members were supposed to come to the House floor to debate the school finance issue and "work it out here."

If debate is cut off, said Eiland, "We might as well just suspend the House and appoint a conference committee. We're saying it's too hard for us - we give up." He said the House would send some "slop" to the Senate, let the Senate send a bill back to the House and then appoint a conference committee of five people "and let them figure it out."

"This has to do with the future of our children and it requires more time than this," said Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston). "The will of this house is not being allowed to work." The Houston Democrat said members are not being given a chance to vote on how to take care of the educational needs of the children of the state or on how the state should raise revenues.

Rep. Timo Garza (D-Eagle Pass) said the House has "a tremendous opportunity to affect the future of our state" by dealing with the school finance crisis. "We cannot allow this process to be cut off," he said.

Heflin pointed out to the members that one of the first things they do at the start of a regular session is to adopt rules of procedure, "the rules by which we run this body, by which we conduct our business." He said those rules allow for calling a previous question.

"To get a bill to the Senate, we must first pass a vehicle from this floor," he said, and then go to conference committee and hopefully "to come together in consensus."

Heflin said if the House were to vote the bill out today, there would be time to "satisfy the reason for which the governor called us here." He urged members to put aside rhetoric and move forward with a consensus "for the benefit of the children of Texas and the taxpayers of Texas."

Wolens argued that moving the previous question would cut off every amendment to HB 1 behind the Grusendorf amendment. "The Grusendorf amendment will be the only amendment to vote on until a vote on the bill itself," he said. House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) responded to a question from Wolens that there were approximately 200 amendments filed for HB 1.

In the end, the Grusendorf amendment was adopted, but the celebration was short-lived when HB 1 failed passage to third reading.

Back to square one.

Perry predicted earlier in the day, "There will be a lot of votes cast between now and the end of this process." He added that what matters most "is the final product."

That product could be days away...and only 15 days remain in the special session.