AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas public schools pummeled by historic budget cuts in 2011 would recover nearly 70 percent of that funding under a Senate plan approved late Tuesday and made possible by Republicans softening on a longstanding reluctance to tap the state's Rainy Day Fund for education.
A major part of the bipartisan deal, which emerged during daylong negotiations, is pulling $800 million from the state's emergency piggybank for schools. That component may be at odds with Gov. Rick Perry, who said this month he supports using the Rainy Day Fund for water and road projects but not classrooms.
Under the proposal unanimously passed by the Senate, schools would also get another $1.4 billion thanks to what lawmakers say are freshly revised local property tax estimates from the state comptroller.
Combined with extra education funding the Senate has previously approved, and Texas schools now appear in line under the Senate plan to win back $3.7 billion of the $5.4 billion lost two years ago.
"We are within spitting distance," Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis said.
Voters would ultimately decide in November through a proposed constitutional amendment whether to allow the state to raid the Rainy Day Fund for public schools. The plan sets aside $300 million of the spending for merit raises for teachers in low-income school districts.
"This is going to allow us to put a substantial amount of new money into public education," said Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the Senate's chief budget-writer.
Classroom spending is the smallest portion of the Senate's proposed $5.7 billion draw down the Rainy Day Fund, which is projected to reach a nearly $12 billion balance by 2015 if left unspent.
The other withdrawals are $2 billion for water projects and $2.9 billion to improve the state's crumbling and congested roads. Both are less than what Senate budget-writers originally proposed earlier this month, and like the education spending, taking the rainy day money for roads and water would also require voter approval in November.
Perry and fiscally conservative Republicans have fiercely safeguarded the Rainy Day Fund in recent years, even as the balance soared and state budgets were slashed. They have argued that the fund was created for one-time expenses and natural disasters, and not recurring costs such as school funding.
Earlier this month, Perry did not waver when asked whether lawmakers should tap the Rainy Day Fund for schools.
"The dollars for education are there in our regular general revenue," Perry said following an appearance at an Austin transportation summit on April 12.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was not in the Senate for one of the biggest votes passed by the chamber this session. He issued a statement calling the deal a chance that "will allow voters to decide if they want to utilize the resources of our state's savings account to prepare for our future in a meaningful and transparent way."
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