The budgetary outlook continues to be gloomy in Austin, where the 82nd Legislature has convened.

Lawmakers have said their hope is to produce a budget that includes no new taxes and doesn’t use any of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. To accomplish that, however, they would have to rely on major cuts to balance the books.

Depending on whose budget it is and how they plan to get to a final balanced result, as much as a $28 billion shortfall needs to be addressed.

The Senate has named its committees and its Finance Committee has already started its hearings on that body’s proposed budget. Membership of the House committees has yet to be announced; however, House Appropriations chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told Quorum Report he expects his committee to hold its first two meetings Feb. 10-11, breaking into subcommittees Feb. 14.

“We really need to get going,” Pitts told the Austin-based online media.

The Texas Association of School Administrators held its midwinter conference Jan. 30-Feb. 2 in Austin, with Waxahachie ISD Superintendent Tom Collins saying that the potential budgetary impact on public education was among the numerous topics discussed.

“The problem with this is, it’s so premature,” he told the Daily Light on Thursday, noting it’s still early in the state’s budgetary process – with the end result, as yet, unknown.

The first numbers announced by lawmakers, however, are concerning.

“The first House budget had us losing about $8 million a year,” Collins said.

WISD already had placed itself under a hiring freeze, with any additional staffing needs, such as with the planned reconfiguration of campuses, to be accomplished within existing personnel. WISD is fortunate enough to have a good fund balance that Collins expects will be in the $15 million to $18 million range once renovation work at the schools is complete. That’s roughly three months’ worth of bills paid.

Collins and the other superintendents are hopeful the final state numbers won’t be as extreme as the ones in the initial budgets presented in the House and Senate.

“I just can’t see that happening,” he said. “Will it be tough? Absolutely. … I hope it’s certainly not as bad as everyone is saying. Over the last couple of days, we’re getting word that it will be tough, but they are acknowledging they do have to fund education.”

Collins said he feels, in the end, lawmakers will have to pull some money out of the Rainy Day Fund. There’s also the chance the Legislature will opt for an accounting measure that will see the state’s August payment to school districts bumped into Texas’ next budget year.

That bump at the state level would require school districts to dip into their fund balances to pay their August bills. In WISD’s case, that would equate to a third of its cash on hand.

“We’re anticipating it will be tough – it will hurt us, no doubt about it – but we’ll be able to open the doors next year,” Collins said, noting the hiring freeze will remain, but no layoffs are anticipated at this time.

Districts around the state typically begin the budget process in the early spring and WISD’s is under way, with Collins saying the administration will take the conservative approach again in preparing for 2011-2012, all the while keeping tabs on what’s occurring in Austin.

“No one knows where we stand until the (state’s) final budget, so we won’t be able to make any decisions until May,” Collins said. “I just have to believe they are going to fund education and take care of our students.”

He’s anticipating a likely 5 to 8 percent reduction in what the state will send WISD.

“We’ll look at that and we’ll make cuts across our budget,” he said. “If there’s some hit into our fund balance, we can sustain a little bit of that. Do we want to dip into our fund balance? No, but we will if we need to – that’s our version of the Rainy Day Fund.”

School funding ‘inequitable and inadequate’

As reported by the Austin-based online media outlet, Texas Tribune, superintendents and trustees took the opportunity during the TASA conference to urge lawmakers to use the state’s Rainy Day Fund and search for new revenue through fees instead of going through with a proposed $10 billion in cuts. They also requested the Legislature fix the current school finance system, which Northside Superintendent John Folks called one of the “most inequitable and inadequate” funding mechanisms in the country. As part of his remarks, Folks said the Legislature created a structural deficit in 2006 by compressing property tax rates and limiting the amount of money districts could raise locally.

Folks said his district faces what could be a 28.5 percent reduction in funding, saying there’s “no question” there will be layoffs – more than 1,000 positions.

As reported by the Texas Tribune: In remarks that could portend a new school finance lawsuit, school leaders reminded legislators that the Texas constitution mandates that the state provide a “free and adequate” education to all children, saying that “there’s no clause that says ‘if funds are available.’ ”

More than half of the 1,030 traditional school districts across Texas – including WISD – have signed a resolution that asks lawmakers to make education “the highest priority” as they craft the final budget.

TFR poll results

At the same time the cuts have raised concerns, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility has released poll results it says show cuts are favored over tax increases.

“Across the board, Texas voters are far more likely to support budget cutters, while being equally unexcited by tax raisers,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, TFR president. “This held true for Republicans and Democrats, women and men, across all income ranges, ethnicities and geographic regions.” ? ?

According to the mid-January poll, 76 percent of voters are “more likely” to vote for a legislator who cuts spending – that includes 89 percent of Republican voters, 63 percent of Democratic voters and 74 percent of independents. On the other hand, 74 percent of Texas voters reported being “less likely” to vote for a candidate who raises taxes. That’s a view held by 85 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents. TFR noted that 74 percent of Texans say keeping taxes and spending low is the best way to protect job growth in the Lone Star State. ? ?

“A clear majority of Texans from every ethnicity, age-range and income-level are expecting the state’s budget to be balanced through cuts, and not tax hikes,” Sullivan said. “Texas lawmakers need to make due with the funds available, not reach deeper into the people’s pockets. For legislators taking the expedient route and looking for more revenues, it will both harm the economy and put them in direct opposition to the wishes of their constituents.”

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