Texas Senate’s Budget Committee to Examine Education Issues

The 15-member budget committee of the Texas Senate, known as the Senate Finance Committee, has received its marching orders for interim studies from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (the Senate’s presiding officer).  Several of Dewhurst’s directives relate to funding for public education, directly or indirectly, and are likely to shape the debate over education funding in this key committee when the legislature convenes again next January .

For instance, the lieutenant governor wants the panel to “monitor” the “impact of funding decisions on merit pay programs for teachers.” This interim charge presumably refers to funding for the state program of District Awards for Teacher Excellence, which was almost all entirely eliminated. For the 2010-2011 biennium, funding for this program was nearly $400 million. For the 2012-2013 biennium, this amount was cut to $24 million.

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst’s interim instructions also direct the committee to “review the state’s current spending limits and determine if statutory changes are needed to continue restraint of spending growth below the rate of inflation plus population growth.” This directive signals that next session we may well face yet another round of agitation for extreme spending limits that would make it impossible to fund public education adequately.

The committee also is assigned to study the implementation of special provisions (so-called “riders”) that were placed in the state budget bill “to enhance government efficiency, reduce government, and encourage job growth.” Also up for committee review is the topic of “receipts from major state taxes,” including “a review of tax equity among industry groups and the impact on job creation and economic growth.”

On a somewhat ambiguous but potentially positive note, Dewhurst’s list also directs the committee to “review the budget process to develop strategies for greater legislative efficiency and transparency, including diversions of dedicated funding streams to alternative uses.” This item “includes options for more user-friendly budget documents, additional notice of posting of new information, and enhanced access to research and background information.”

The Senate Finance Committee also is directed to study and make recommendations regarding the methods of financing construction projects at higher education institutions. Included in this charge is a mandate to “examine the levels of deferred maintenance, the impact of deferred maintenance on the ability to offer basic instructional services, and the methods used to finance deferred maintenance projects.” The Finance Committee will conduct this interim study jointly with the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Coming Monday:   The March 26 Hotline will report on Saturday’s Save Texas Schools rally at the state capitol.