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House passes stripped finance bill
Pitts’ feelings not hurt by loss of VLT proposal

AUSTIN – The House is ready to take a final vote on bare-bones school finance legislation after a day of roller-coaster debate and fireworks over the proposal.

The bill emerged Tuesday as lawmakers pushed competing proposals, scrapped video gambling – with the support of Rep. Jim Pitts – and bashed Gov. Rick Perry.

House debate fell apart earlier in the day as various measures, including Pitts’ proposal to allow video lottery terminals at dog and horse racetracks, were removed from the bill. The House voted to end debate and eventually gave preliminary approval to the scaled-down bill so it could advance to the Senate. The final House vote is set for today.

The amended plan would provide significantly less new money to schools that are pleading for more funds.

“Today, the House leadership turned its back on the school children, parents and teachers of Texas,” said Donna New Haschke, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. “Collectively, they walked away from their responsibility to pass a bill that would make sure that public schools had the financial support necessary for Texas and our children to prosper.”

Lawmakers are about halfway through a 30-day special session to overhaul the way Texas pays for public education, which is now dependent on local property taxes. Once the House gives final passage to the bill, the Senate is expected to pass its own bill before lawmakers from each chamber come together in a conference committee to decide on a final product.

“I think where we go is over to the Senate and see what they have to offer,” House Speaker Tom Craddick said after the House adjourned. “And then we go to conference like every other bill and see where we are with additional money and how we fund it.”

The move to cut off debate and pass a scaled down version initially failed, but Republican legislators huddled behind closed doors for almost two hours early Tuesday evening. When they reconvened, the leadership had enough votes to pass the measure.

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said he and his family had “been robbed” by not having the opportunity to offer and debate amendments.

“They never even tried today,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco.
Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, said after House debate stalled that the Senate had a plan that could reduce property taxes significantly while still giving more money to public education.

“We’ve got to have more money for the schoolchildren of Texas and we’ve got to send it over to the Senate to get it done,” Gattis said.

House Democrats who said they had amendments pending were angered. Craddick said about 200 amendments were pending, but were never considered.
The bill that passed in the House would lower property taxes for school operation to $1.20 from $1.50 in appraised land value. The previous plan reduced property taxes to $1.05.

The latest plan also would raise sales taxes to 7 percent, up from the current 6.25 percent. Newspapers, magazine subscriptions, bottled water and billboard advertising would be taxable under the plan.

The meltdown in the House came a day after Perry criticized the plan passed by a House committee on Saturday. That plan would have replaced the franchise tax with a 1.25 percent payroll tax and an array of other tax increases.

Craddick chastised Perry for tainting the House committee’s efforts with his last-minute comments.

In a direct knock to Perry, the House took a vote on Perry’s proposal and struck it down by a vote of 126-0, with 16 members not voting.

“(Perry) called us here without so much as a consensus. He then undermined the process and criticized the committee’s plan,” Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said before the House rejected Perry’s proposal.

A number of Republicans in the House had opposed the video gambling measure and pledged they would vote against it on the House floor. They said it would hurt families and that it wasn’t a reliable money source for education.
“We felt that was the wrong way to finance education,” said Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving. “It was just a bad deal all the way around for Texas.”

Pitts’ proposal would generate an estimated $1.5 billion a year for education by allowing up to 40,000 video lottery terminals at seven racetracks and three Indian reservations.

Pitts said the VLT amendment could be added back later.

News editor Patrick M. Walker compiled this report using information from the Associated Press and the Daily Light.

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