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Texas House Proposes Massive Increase For Public School Funding

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / The Texas Tribune
Dennis Bonnen presides over his first votes as speaker of the Texas House on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

As Texas’ Republican leadership calls for property tax cuts and a school finance overhaul, the Texas House on Monday pitched a bold proposal: Pump roughly $7 billion more state funds into public schools — but only if lawmakers can satisfactorily overhaul the school finance system to slow the growth of property taxes.

Budget documents published Monday evening show the House has offered up a whopping 17 percent increase in K-12 public education funding so long as lawmakers achieve a few lofty goals in reforming how the state pays for public schools: Reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes, decrease the need for the unpopular Robin Hood system that requires property-wealthy school districts to subsidize poorer ones, and maintain an equitable system of school finance, as required by the state Constitution.

Counting all sources of funding — including local property taxes, state revenue and federal dollars — the state’s public education budget would grow to about $70.6 billion in the two-year cycle from 2020 to 2021, according to a Legislative Budget Board summary of the proposed House budget. That’s an increase of 16.7 percent from the previous two-year budget cycle, when the state spent about $60.5 billion on public schools.

The unveiling of the House’s budget priorities comes less than a week after State Rep. Dennis Bonnen was named leader of the Capitol’s lower chamber; the Angleton Republican has not yet named his top lieutenants for the 2019 legislative session, including who will chair the powerful, budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Bonnen has joined Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in calling for a school finance overhaul and property tax reductions, but Monday’s proposal marks the first time a member of the state’s Republican leadership has attached a price tag to those reforms.

“Speaker Bonnen has made it explicitly clear that the House’s top priority is to accomplish meaningful school finance reform this session,” spokeswoman Cait Meisenheimer said in a written statement. “He looks forward to working with lawmakers to increase the state’s share of funding for public education and alleviate a growing property tax burden, while ensuring the Legislature remains a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.”

The state is forecasted to have about 8.1 percent more funding available to spend over the next, two-year budget cycle. The House’s proposed budget would also withdraw $633 million out of the state savings account, called the Economic Stabilization Fund, to pay for retired teachers’ pensions, school safety improvements and disaster-relief programs.

That account, also known as the rainy day fund, has grown to a record level thanks to booming oil and gas production. Even after the House’s proposed $633 million withdrawal, the fund’s balance is projected to reach $14.7 billion in 2021.

The budget recommends spending $109 million on school safety, which lawmakers have discussed as a priority item since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting near Houston left 10 dead. Included in school safety funding would be about $12 million for children’s mental health programs.

Notably, the House budget decreases state funding for health care and human services by about 3.2 percent. Education and health care make up the vast majority of state spending.

Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, would see a decrease of $1.4 billion in state funds, for example.

The Senate is expected to unveil its own budget proposal on Tuesday. The state budget is the only item lawmakers are required to pass by the end of the legislative session in May. Lawmakers will reconcile the two chambers’ proposals before voting on a final budget near the end of session.

Edgar Walters is a reporter with the Texas Tribune.