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Texas Rejects Teacher-Salary Increase

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Although he waged an active campaign to win substantial salary increases for Texas teachers--proclaiming that the increases were a high legislative priority--Gov. Mark White was resoundingly defeated on the issue at the close of the state's biennial legislative session late last month.

In the final days of the session, the House ways and means committee rejected, by a vote of 14-1, a last-minute attempt backed by the Governor to fund the proposal with a gasoline-tax increase. His earlier tax proposals had been opposed.

The Governor also paid for a weeklong series of television advertisements asking citizens to write their legislators in support of a tax increase for teachers' salaries. But the tactic produced few calls or letters, legislative aides said.

Speaker of the House Gibson D. Lewis said House members wanted more assurances from the Governor that his emphasis will be on "quality education" before they vote for new taxes. Mr. Lewis has proposed a post-session review of the state's education system.

House and Senate staff members said, however, that they were "virtually certain" that the Governor would call a special session in July to reconsider the teacher-salary issue. The legislature must reconvene anyway to renew the Texas Employment Commission, which expires Sept. 1, they said.

A spokesman for the Governor said he had not yet decided whether to ask legislators to reconsider his teacher-pay proposal. "He's ready if the legislature is ready to consider the necessary tax increases," the spokesman said.

This year, the state's budget for schools is $7.6 billion. When Governor White took office, he recommended increasing it to $8.6 billion, but the legislature eventually passed a $7.5-billion package. The package allocated $1 billion less for teacher salaries than the Governor had requested.

His teacher-salary plan would have granted teachers a 24-percent average increase, spread over a two-year period, and would have cost about $1.5 billion. His proposals also included increased funds for bilingual education and for equalizing school-district finances. During his campaign last year, Mr. White was strongly supported by teacher unions, observers said.

He proposed a "sin tax" on luxury items, such as cigarettes, alcohol, and video-game machines, to pay for the increases. But the legislature balked at a tax hike and only approved a 4.5-percent average increase for the teachers already mandated by state law. Several other less costly education bills, such as one permitting qualified personnel from industry to teach science and mathematics, also failed to gain legislative support.

Observers cited several key reasons for the failure of Governor White's campaign. One was a difference with House leaders over merit pay.

The Governor has consistently called for across-the-board increases in teacher salaries rather than pay increases based on performance. Larry Yawn, Mr. White's education coordinator, said the Governor does not advocate merit pay because "he doesn't feel an adequate evaluation system has been thought up yet." He said the Governor believes the main issue is to attract more able people into the profession by raising the whole salary structure.

However, some members of the House, including William Haley, the chairman of its public-education committee, favor some kind of limited merit-pay system.

Mr. Haley drafted a general education bill that included an "excellence fund." Some money in this fund might have gone to especially talented teachers selected by individual districts, said Robert Culley, Mr. Halley's legislative aide.

In the middle of May, as the session was drawing to a close, Gov. White asked Mr. Haley to rewrite his bill, substituting the 24 percent across-the-board increases for the excellence fund, according to Mr. Culley. Mr. Haley declined to do so.

During the session, teachers' unions mounted a strong lobbying campaign against the Haley bill, mainly because of the merit-pay proposal, Mr. Culley added. The bill failed to pass.

Another factor that may have derailed Governor White's salary-increase proposal was an unexpected reduction in state revenues, observers said. The Governor came into office denouncing tax increases and anticipating a $5-billion revenue surplus to finance his priorities. Observers said many legislators regarded a pay increase for teachers favorably at that time. "When the Governor announced that salary increases were his number one priority, that seemed legitimate," Mr. Culley said.

Surplus Cut in Half

But by last month the recession had cut the surplus nearly in half, and the Governor became an advocate of higher taxes. New tax bills must originate in the conservative House ways and means committee, and according to aides there, most members of that committee did not make the switch with the Governor; their mail also ran heavily against imposing new taxes.

Some observers also suggested that the Governor did not lobby the legislators enough. "There was little one-on-one, or personal contact," said a ways and means committee staff member.

But others said the real issue for Texas legislators was whether to give up the state's low tax rates. "They'll have to decide whether it's worth sacrificing their teachers for the incredibly low tax rate," said one Senate observer.

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