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Unanimity on supplemental budget bodes well for next biennium

By Sen. Carlos Uresti

The Texas Legislature may have set out on a new path by retracing a few old steps.

By a unanimous vote, the Senate adopted a supplemental funding bill providing some $4.5 billion in general revenues for Medicaid and more than $1.7 billion for public education. These funds, for the current biennium that ends Aug. 31, will help correct a stride in the wrong direction taken by the Legislature two years ago.

Faced with an unprecedented budget shortfall, the 2011 Legislature put some of its Medicaid obligations on a credit card and cut public education by more than $5 billion. It was the first time in state history that a budget did not account for the enrollment growth that everyone knew was coming.

As a result, public schools across Texas were forced to tighten their belts by laying off teachers and other personnel and increasing class sizes. The overall quality of instruction took a hit, along with the economy of communities across Senate District 19.

In the intervening two years, the Texas economy began a resurgence, led by phenomenal oil booms in South and North Texas and the Permian basin. This allowed the comptroller to revise her revenue estimate for the current biennium by an additional $8 billion, giving lawmakers the opportunity to pay the Medicaid IOU and restore some of the money that was cut from our schools.

I supported the supplemental budget bill along with all of my Senate colleagues — Democrat and Republican — in a 30-0 vote, though I would have preferred that even more of the public school funds be restored. Now that effort will begin anew.

House and Senate budget writers are turning their full attention to the next two-year budget, for 2014-15, and here again, the comptroller had good news — $101.4 billion in general revenue funds are available, about 12 percent more than last time. There is no excuse now for shortchanging our schools.

Democrats fought hard but unsuccessfully two years ago against education budget cuts and Medicaid funding gimmicks. But fortunately a different tone has emerged in this session. The majority party is starting to listen to us as partners in the legislative process. I believe the bipartisan vote on the supplemental bill reflects their renewed commitment to education and public health that, hopefully, will carry over to the budget process now at hand.

It is disappointingly clear that the Legislature is not going to address for now a recent court ruling that declared the public school finance system unconstitutional. There's talk of a special session in 2014. But while we wait for a final ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the challenges exposed by the trial will persist:

  • School enrollment has grown from 3.9 million students to 4.7 million over the past decade.
  • Texas is underfunding schools by about $2,000 per student, up to $11 billion total.
  • Texas is currently 50th in the number of people over age 25 without a college degree.
  • Hispanic and black poverty rates are three times that of whites.
  • 40 percent of adult Hispanics in Texas haven’t finished high school.
  • The state’s dropout rate is in decline but still high at about 27 percent, compared to 22 percent nationally.
Reforming the school finance system may have to wait for another day, but that doesn't mean the Legislature can't do more for public education right now. Passing the supplemental bill in such a bipartisan fashion hopefully set the stage for the two-year appropriation we will make for public schools in May. It was a step in the right direction.

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©2012 Carlos Uresti Campaign  •  A.M. Hernandez, Treasurer  •  P.O. Box 240431  •  San Antonio, Texas  •  78224