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Tex. Governor To Summon Lawmakers for Finance Session

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Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas is planning to call a special session of the legislature after this week's elections to deal once again with the issue of education finance.

Aides to lawmakers last week said the Governor will call legislators back to Austin next Tuesday to get discussion moving again on the thorny issue that has pitted rich and poor school districts--and their legislators--against one another for many months.

"We at least need to get people back in to [focus] on it,'' said Sonia Hernandez, the Governor's director of education policy.

The state is under a court order to come up with a plan by June 1 that reduces funding disparities between school districts. If lawmakers fail to meet the deadline, a state judge has threatened to cut off state and local funding of schools, effectively shutting them down.

State leaders are attempting to get the legislature moving as soon as possible in the event that a constitutional amendment must be taken before the voters. To do so, and still meet the June 1 deadline, the legislature would have to adopt a proposal by mid-February at the latest.

Election Changes Expected

Another reason for the haste is anticipation of a change in the composition of the legislature.

Analysts predicted that redistricting as a result of the 1990 Census would enable Republicans to pick up several seats in the Senate this week. If the Republicans gained two or more seats in that chamber, they would have enough procedural strength to block legislation.

What may be even more significant, though, is simply the addition of new members, observers said. "We will have a lot of new members, and any time we do, we have to start the education process again, which takes time,'' said one legislative aide.

If the lame-duck legislature is unable to reach an accord, a projected budget shortfall of more than $3 billion is expected to consume a considerable amount of lawmakers' time and energy during the 1993 session.

One final complication is the pending retirement of Speaker of the House Gibson D. Lewis. While the Senate is in a position to pass the legislation as early as the first week in the session, observers said, a fight is brewing in the House over Mr. Lewis's replacement.

"The politics of that can easily gum up the works,'' said one observer.

State leaders have been working feverishly behind the scenes to put together a plan that they can sell to both the Senate and the House, where building coalitions on education finance has proved to be difficult in the past.

Current plans call for the Governor, Lieut. Gov. Bob Bullock, Mr. Lewis, and Sen. Carl A. Parker, the powerful chairman of the education committee, to present a single draft.

So far the leadership has been fairly successful in keeping most details of the plan under wraps until after the election.

Constitutional Amendment

Several sources indicated, however, that the leadership would seek an amendment to the state constitution. What specific changes would be sought is unknown.

Since the courts have struck down prior finance plans three times, citing their unconstitutionality, the leadership theorizes that it will require an amendment to the state constitution in order to pass judicial muster, one source said.

The state supreme court in January struck down the school-finance system created by the legislature in 1991, ruling that the county-based property-tax districts in the law were in essence a statewide property tax, which the constitution prohibits. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

Education lobbyists hailed the leadership's decision to press ahead.

"They are determined to try to find a solution. That we applaud,'' said Nancy L. Cotton, a spokeswomman for the Texas Association of School Boards.

But Ms. Cotton said the T.A.S.B. is concerned that the leadership's plan apparently calls for only $645 million in new school funding for the biennium, when the state funding formula calls for districts to receive $850 million.

"It's not even enough to meet enrollment growth,'' she said.

Consequently, she added, there is growing concern that massive property-tax increases may be needed.

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