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The Distractor Factor: Texas 82nd Legislature in Review, Part 2

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Continued from Part 1.

The debate for both sides of the legislature would revolve around the use of the state’s nearly $10 billion Rainy Day Fund. As education was facing cuts of up to $4 billion, it became clear to mainly House and Senate Democrats that using that money would make the most sense to give schools the funding necessary to fill the gaps districts would be facing in the next two years.

Several bills were proposed to address the cuts, including discussions on changing the funding formulas established in 2005 (which were designed to be temporary) and leveling cuts to districts across the board. In all of the discussions considered, none included fixing the structural tax deficit that caused the shortfall.

In addition, both chambers began to propose mandates and measures that would either increase the amount of money districts would need to spend on their students or decrease educational capacity for students. A heavily debated proposal was to change the state law related to class size in grades kindergarten through fourth grade from the current 22:1 student to teacher ratio to 25:1. This would allow school districts to pack more students into elementary classrooms thereby needing fewer teachers. Other controversial measures included increasing funding for charter schools and providing tax dollars for school vouchers.

Meanwhile, other issues for the state were considered and passed which, in retrospect, seem mindless compared to the budget problems education was facing. Laws were passed to make it a felony to weight a fish during a fishing competition, to remove funding for public hospitals that perform voluntary abortions, and to allow police officers to question and detain individuals they feel might be illegal immigrants, a measure similar to the controversial Arizona law.

As the weeks progressed, education became a hot topic in Texas. School districts began proposing massive layoffs of employees, bond elections were placed on ballots, budgets were cut in every area, and protests were staged in Austin, outside school district administration buildings, and in locations where Governor Perry was speaking and promoting his book. Of all the proposed cuts to social services in the state, public education was now at the forefront of debate for Austin and the citizens of Texas. The issue was so controversial that by May of 2011, as the regular session of the 82nd legislature was coming to a close, no deal had yet been reached for funding education, the last piece necessary to balance the two-year budget for the state.

In the final week of the regular session, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus along with Senate and House Education Committee leaders Florence Shapiro and Rob Eissler began to conduct backroom deals to reach a compromise on funding education. These deals came in the form of a series of addenda to existing amendments. As the deals were made and the final budgets was proposed to the House and Senate, the debate began.

As the regular session was coming to a close and the vote for the budget was set to begin, and expected to pass, Senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, staged a 70+ minute filibuster as the time expired on the regular session to prevent a vote on the state budget and force the two houses of the Texas Legislature to revisit that issues of school funding. Sen. Davis’ successful filibuster forced a special session and all the backroom deals were dead on the floor.

Coming in Part 3: the special session and the pros and cons of the filibuster.

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