After Republicans finally reached agreement over the most contentious area of budget negotiations – education funding – Democrat Senator, Wendy Davis, successfully filibustered a key piece of legislation, SB 1811, and forced a special session. Governor Rick Perry called a special session on Monday, May 30. The special session began promptly at 8:00 a.m. the following morning and can last as long as 30 days. The first two items on the governor’s list are the non-revenue and school finance bill, SB 1811, and Medicaid reforms that were part of SB 23.
Democrats may have spoiled the sine die parties, but Republicans hold a majority in the House and Senate, and Governor Rick Perry has the power to determine what issues are heard during the special session. Since he first called a special session, he has already added congressional redistricting to the agenda. There is speculation that he may add a few more Republican “wish list” items that didn’t pass during the regular session, but that remains to be seen.
Democrats and third party groups are making headlines by claiming that the Legislature should use the special session to tap into the Rainy Day Fund to support public education. Texans are getting their first chance on Thursday, June 2 to testify on the school finance plan being debated in the Legislature. However, Lt. Governor Dewhurst warned that the Senate would no longer use the rule requiring two-thirds vote to bring up legislation, so any attempts to block legislation by Democrats won’t be possible.
It appears that the calls to use more from the Rainy Day Fund will continue to be ignored. Lt. Governor Dewhurst stated that “we’re not going to renegotiate the budget. We’re going to move Texas forward.” However, it is rumored that many House members are having second thoughts about the budget they already voted for and its effect on their local school districts. Odds favor that the status quo remains, and the budget that was passed during the regular session stays largely intact during the special. However, assuming that is what happens, it will be interesting to see how the large cuts from the budget play out for legislators when they get home. Legislators have reacted to a November electorate that clearly called for cuts in spending and no new taxes; but will voters be happy with the reality of these cuts? That is the question making many legislators nervous, and if there is significant blow-back from parents and other community leaders, legislators will need to start thinking about ways to restore at least some of the funding cut from this year’s budget.
Keep in mind that many of the cuts for this budget were achieved by pushing large payments to public education into the next biennium. That means next session’s legislators will face a shortfall that will likely need to be covered by an immediate injection of money from the Rainy Day Fund. That Rainy Day Fund has essentially been spent by the next legislative session. If voters demand funding for education be restored going forward, where will legislators get more money to do that and close the gap caused by the ongoing structural deficit caused by the property/franchise tax swap of 2007? That’s the multi-billion dollar question facing legislators and the state as a whole.