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Shapiro fending off 30-odd amendments to SB 8

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

Calling herself the "perennial author" of public school reform legislation, Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) today once again brought an education reform bill to the Senate Floor for what has turned into perennial debate.

"We have been on a journey," said Shapiro in laying out her SB 8 that addresses public school reform. That journey began in January 2003, she said, when the Senate pledged to do what was necessary to "revamp" the state's system of school finance - to both provide property tax relief and reform the public school system.

Shapiro said the burden on local taxpayers had become "untenable," and because there was a $1.50 cap on property tax rates with 70 percent of the state's students in schools operating under that cap, the system also was untenable because it appeared to be a statewide property tax that is unconstitutional.

As debate on the bill began, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) questioned Shapiro regarding concerns about House strategies relative to the bill - that the other chamber would seek perhaps go to conference and hold fast to their issues or to send their "take it or leave it" version to the Senate. Whitmire said he is fearful the Senate would be faced with a bill in about a week that will only require 16 votes, it will be too early for a filibuster, "and we'll be faced with an up or down bill we find not in the best interest of the state." Whitmire said at that time it would be "that bill or no bill" and senators would be forced to pass it.

Whitmire said that given information from schools in his district regarding how the bill would negatively impact them financially, and out of fear that Senate Bill 8 "will not be the bill that ultimately comes before this body for an up or down vote," Whitmire said he would be voting against the bill.

"At this moment in time, this is the best work this body has done," said Shapiro. She said she could not speak to what the House might do relative to the bill. "My intention as chair of the conference committee is to do things differently and to make sure the version we send over there is very well discussed," she said. "This version is going to have a lot of support from the Senate." She said if something different comes back from the House or from the conference committee, it would be her intention to "stand by this version - 100 percent if I can."

Shapiro called SB 8 "a fine bill" that creates a higher equity system than ever before. Tier One, she said, is 100 percent equitable while the enrichment piece, Tier Two, is at 92 percent equity, the highest ever.

"You will find that this bill is not very different from the many bills we have seen before," said the Senate Education Committee chair. She said some 85 percent of the bill is actually SB 2, which has been voted out previously. She said she is hopeful to keep all but one amendment off the bill. "It is very important to note that this bill has been seen many, many times before," said Shapiro. "I feel very confident that we will have had most of these amendments on the Senate floor before," and either voted them down or a decision was made not to have them in the bill.

Shapiro said when there are too many amendments, it "ends up not even looking like the bill we first put on the floor for your consideration." All of the provisions of the bill have been "heard, seen or adopted" prior to the bill being brought to the Senate floor today. With hundreds of hours of testimony on these issues, she said, "We've heard it all." She said three major controversial issues - a statewide school start date, November school board elections and recapture issues - are not part of the bill. She reiterated that some 85 percent of the provisions of the bill have been voted out of the Senate twice before by 27-4 votes.

Citing figures from officials of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) described the net effect of SB 8 would have on that district. He said the school officials note that mandates in the bill for teacher pay and the effects of the teacher retirement changes would result in a net loss to that district. He said the money going into the district from SB 8 is a $6 million net positive, but once the mandates are paid for, the net is a $5.9 million loss.

Repeating rumors that the House is working on a substitute for SB 8, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) reminded Shapiro that the result could be a bill going to conference once again with "no guarantee" that when the conference committee report comes back, "It won't be loaded down with what has been turned down time and time again by this Senate."

The Senate is now debating the 30-odd floor amendments that have been pre-filed.