Despite all the well-scripted posturing, a few things were missing yesterday from the state Senate’s “Kumbaya” session over SB1, its budget plan. There was no music and dancing to go with the choreographed exchange of political back-patting and backside-covering. And, there wasn’t a decent budget either.
As we were reminded ad nauseam, SB1 is an “improvement” over the budget drafted during 2011, but that isn’t saying much, since the 2011 document ravaged education, health care and other important state services. SB1 would restore some of that funding, but it still would leave thousands of public school students in overcrowded classrooms, thousands of struggling college students without enough financial aid and thousands of low-income Texans without health care.
Calling SB1 an “improvement” is kind of like saying living in a leaky tent is an “improvement” over living on a park bench when you have enough money to buy a house. In the case of SB1, budget writers left $12 billion of taxpayer money sitting untouched in the Rainy Day Fund, more than enough money to fully restore the education and health care funding and meet other state needs with raising any additional taxes.
As approved by the Senate, 29-2, SB1 would restore only about one-fourth of the $5.4 billion – or $1,062 per student – slashed from public schools two years ago. Only Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and new arrival Sylvia Garcia of Houston, both Democrats, dared to break with the Senate’s go-along-to-get along clubbiness and vote against the bill. Davis also made an articulate argument about how the measure “fails Texas children.”
Freshman Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, the Tea Party and Texans for Lawsuit Reform darling, may still be learning her way around the Capitol but she has quickly learned one of the moldiest clichés of the statehouse’s right wing. She dissed the idea of “throwing money” at education. In truth, Texas has never “thrown money” at education, but before the privatization champions took over the Capitol, the Legislature tried to do a decent job of budget-writing.
Defending his budget, Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams of The Woodlands tried to dispute the severity of the education cuts and suggested that tapping into the Rainy Day Fund to restore all the cuts – which he called “ongoing operations” – could harm the state’s credit rating.
The cuts are severe on their face. About 5 million students are enrolled in Texas’ public schools. That means each student’s share, on average, of the $5.4 billion in cuts, spread over two years, is about $1,000. The National Education Association calculated the average per-pupil cut at $1,062, using Texas’ own data.
Texas’ per-pupil spending is more than $3,000 below the national average and ranks Texas 49th among the states and the District of Columbia. That poses a larger threat to the state’s economy and its future credit rating than spending part of the Rainy Day Fund to repair the damage to students’ learning opportunities.
The next step in the budget-setting process is the House. Ultimately, the final budget will be written by a House-Senate conference committee later this spring. More than two-thirds of Texans, according to a recent bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA, support using the Rainy Day Fund to restore education funding, and that support crosses partisan lines. If you are among that majority, you need to let your state senators and state representatives know – and keep reminding them. If you don’t who your lawmakers are, click on the following link and type in your address to find how who they are and how to contact them.