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TX Sen. Whitmire's Filibuster Ends First Called Session; Perry Calls Lawmakers Back Thursday

By J. Lyn Carl, GalleryWatch.com

Austin, TX –

The Texas House and Senate played a game of political "chicken" today with HB 2, the public school reform bill. Ultimately this "train wreck" of a piece of legislation was derailed by a filibuster by Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), prompting Gov. Rick Perry to call the Legislature back Thursday at 10 a.m. for the Second Called Session.

"If it's a good bill tonight, it will be a better bill in the morning," said Whitmire.

Both chambers were headed full throttle toward hoped-for passage of the controversial bill - fueled by pressure from the governor. But just before the head-on collision, the pressure increased, this time from angry public school officials and constituents - urging lawmakers not to pass the bill.

Under the gun of a ticking clock, members scrambled as time was running out on the First Called Session. However, even before the midnight drop-dead deadline, HB 2 was starting to turn into a political pumpkin.

The House was reluctant to bring the conference committee report up for approval, and thus kept recessing and standing at ease, punting the HB 2 ball to the Senate. It was a hot political potato and neither chamber wanted to bear the blame for its demise.

With HB 3, the property tax relief bill, already being borne by pallbearers to the political graveyard, there was hope that at least HB 2 - and the special session - could be salvaged. Even so, Gov. Rick Perry promised lawmakers they would be back the following day for a second special session he would call.

But Perry and others thought the second called session would be focusing on just one - not both - of the major bills for which the first special session was actually called. Things started to go south late in the day.

After the narrow passage of a resolution allowing the conference committee to go outside the bounds on a number of issues, Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) offered a motion to accept the Conference Committee Report on HB 2.

"We're coming to the end once again of a very long journey," said Shapiro. "It's deja vu all over again."

Saying it has taken the legislature two regular sessions and two special sessions to bring forward this bill, she said the issues are ones seen "many, many times before." The Plano lawmaker said the conference committee report represents a compromise between the House and Senate. "We are two bodies working together with a common goal of what's good for the state of Texas," she said, even though both chambers may have different objectives and "different ways of getting there."

Shapiro said the language in the conference committee report has been "embraced" as concepts by both bodies. "It is very important that we not lose sight of what this bill does," she said. Much of the dialogue heard around the State Capitol in recent days "does not give information about the good things" in HB 2.

The Plano Republican offered a litany of "mores" that the bill offers: $2.8 billion more funding for schools; more equity than the state has ever seen; more property tax relief through modernization of the state's tax system; more funding for textbooks; more funding for school districts to perform and purchase instructional materials in print or digital format; more access to technology for students; more money for teacher salaries and benefits; more money for the most experienced teachers through longevity incentive pay; more in property tax relief to make sure taxpayers are not the ones "footing the bill alone for schools;" more academic accountability; more assistance to schools that need intervention early; and more transparency on financial data.

"The State of Texas will pay a greater cost of education and educating our most precious resources," said Shapiro, while creating one of the most equitable systems in the country and providing for new capacity.

Before a vote could be taken on accepting the conference committee report, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) offered a point of order, pointing out that a provision in the conference committee report is not in either the House or Senate versions of the bill. The issue dealt with prohibiting superintendents from receiving financial benefits for personal services. Barrientos said both the House and Senate versions prohibit such financial gains, but the conference committee report says the prohibition does not apply to personal services performed for institutions of higher education, regional services centers and others if the superintendent provides notice of payment to the district's board of trustees.

That provision is in neither the House nor the Senate versions, said Barrientos, and the change "is substantive," because it explicitly creates an exception to the prohibition.

While the Senate Parliamentarian reviewed the point of order, Shapiro fielded questions from Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) regarding equity and local enrichment, teacher incentives and district runs for schools.

Shapleigh also repeated his mantra of "Nine in 10 are paying more, so one in 10 can pay less," as it relates to the proposed tax bill that was to have been part of the school reform package. He said that also seems to apply to the school districts' funding.

"We will have the most equitable system we've ever had," said Shapiro. She said the state will give probably 8 percent of its 4.2 million schoolchildren the ability "to do something different," but the rest of the system "is as equitable as it will ever be.

"We cannot have 100 percent equity. It's not humanly possible and it doesn't make sense."

Shapleigh said he would allow other members to talk, expecting some might want to talk past midnight, the "witching hour" when the session would end.

"Have at it," said Shapiro.

Saying he could not support the conference committee report, Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) said it does not address either the court case that saw the state's school finance system declared unconstitutional or the education funding needs of schools in his district. Lucio said the equity funding gap, according to experts, increases under HB 2.

The liveliest exchanges on the bill were between Shapiro and Sen. Mario Gallegos (D-Houston). Shapiro accused Gallegos of making statements and calling them questions, of not listening to her answers and of asking the same question over and over. He repeatedly asked for figures for the school districts in his senatorial district and Shapiro repeatedly told Gallegos that was his responsibility, not hers, to determine. At one point, Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) offered a tongue-in-cheek commentary asking if the Senate could reconsider its vote on agreeing to seat Gallegos on the first day of the session following the challenge of his election win.

As the parliamentarian was putting in writing her ruling on Barrientos' point of order, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked if senators could review the decision before a ruling and if it could be discussed with the presiding officer before the ruling. The ruling may be appealed after the chair rules, pointed out Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria), who was in the chair.

After a lengthy discussion between Shapiro, Barrientos and the parliamentarian, Armbrister overruled the point of order.

West then offered a six-pronged point of order as the clock began ticking down from three hours remaining the session. At 9:40 p.m. the point of order was overruled.

At 9:45 p.m., Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), who it had been rumored would filibuster the bill, began to speak in opposition to accepting the conference committee report.

"I believe we can do better," said Whitmire. He said to those who say the legislature cannot produce a better bill even if they met in another special session, "We won't know unless we try."

Whitmire said the bill "does not solve school finance in any significant way." He said teacher salaries will not have been sufficiently increased, school districts across the state will not receive the increase in funding "they so critically need." The Houston Democrat and Dean of the Texas Senate, noted, "I could spend a lot of time telling you what the bill does not do, but let me tell you what the bill does do.

What it has done is unite those who oppose the bill, he said, from teachers to PTAs, to rural schools, to property wealth and property poor districts and to both Democrat and Republican lawmakers.

With a little over an hour left in the session, Shapleigh proposed a motion to adjourn sine die, given that Perry announced he would call another special session on Thursday. Armbrister, in the chair, refused to recognize Shapleigh on his motion.

Whitmire, with tag-team help from Democratic colleagues Sens. West, Lucio, Shapleigh, Gallegos and Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), had little problem speaking for a little over two hours to filibuster the bill to death when the session ended at midnight.