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McNeely: Patrick's dig at Straus on school finance blows back

Dec. 27, 2017 at 10:45 p.m.


It's interesting to witness the high-minded diplomacy of the president of the Texas Senate — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — in dealing with the legislative body on the west side of the Capitol.

Patrick, in a seemingly unnecessary and snarky jab at House Speaker Joe Straus, last week challenged Straus to make good on some overdue appointments.

In a news release emailed at 3:45 p.m. that day under the headline "Lt. Gov. Patrick Calls on Speaker to Make School Finance Commission Appointments," it said Straus had yet to announce his appointees to the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, established by House Bill 21 in the special legislative session this summer.

"Speaker Straus has so far failed to make any appointments to the School Finance Commission. The deadline for making these appointments was Dec. 14. If the speaker is truly serious about working on this issue, he will announce his appointments soon," Patrick proclaimed.

He said that because he and Gov. Greg Abbott had named their appointees, which together amount to enough for a quorum, he would ask the governor to convene the commission without House appointees if Straus failed to name them.

Straus, who has signaled he'll retire from the House, and as speaker, when his term concludes in January 2019, posted his own press statement — "Speaker Straus Appoints Four to School Finance Panel" — at 4:59 p.m. — one hour and 14 minutes after Patrick's.

It almost certainly took more than an hour and 14 minutes for Straus' office to produce the statement, meaning its preparation probably was in process well before Patrick's was posted and presumably was not provoked by his in-your-face challenge.

Nonetheless, Straus also explained why the school finance study came about in the first place.

"The House takes school finance reform seriously, and this year we preferred to act instead of studying the issue further," Straus said. "That's why we overwhelmingly passed major school finance legislation twice this year.

"The members of the House Public Education Committee carefully produced a bill that would have begun reforming the school finance system, put more dollars into almost every classroom and reduced the need for higher property taxes. ...," he said.

Straus' statement said the House continues ready and eager to come up with the money to improve school finance — just as it had been all year.

In both regular and special sessions, the House "overwhelmingly" approved House Bill 21 — yes, it had the same bill number in both the regular and special sessions — carried by Public Education Committee Chair Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

The bill "would have put almost $2 billion in additional state funding into public schools. By increasing the state's share of education funding, it would have reduced the amount of money that school districts pay through the Robin Hood system by hundreds of millions of dollars," the statement continued.

"It also would have updated and reformed several of the formulas used to distribute money to schools. The legislation did not become law because the Texas Senate significantly reduced the amount of money that the bill would have put into education."

Lest there be any confusion, the Senate's presiding officer and dominant figure, is Patrick.

What started out on Patrick's statement parlay might have been an effort to embarrass Straus. But it wound up appearing — perhaps inadvertently — like he called the guns in on his own position.

The commission ... For the record, Patrick's appointees are Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and Sens. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Royce West, D-Dallas. A citizen member is Pflugerville Superintendent Doug Killian.

Straus' appointees are Huberty, who will serve as co-chair of the Public School Finance Commission. Also serving will be two other members of the House committee: Reps. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, and Ken King, R-Canadian. Citizen member is Nicole Conley Johnson, chief financial officer for Austin ISD, which will pay $534 million to the state this year under the Robin Hood school finance system.

Abbott named as chair of the commission former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister. His other appointees are former state Rep. Elvira Reyna, R-Denton; Todd Williams, education adviser to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings; and Melissa Martin, an educator from Deer Park.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin columnist who covers Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.

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