Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar appeared at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin on Sept. 22 for a conversation regarding the state budget. Notably, he confirmed that state revenues have continued to grow since the beginning of the year and that estimates will be updated before the anticipated education special session in October.
At the first meeting of the Senate Finance Committee during the regular session, Hegar reported on the funds senators would be working with. Touting a $32.7 billion surplus, he cautioned the committee that such a windfall would likely never occur again in their lifetimes and encouraged them to be frugal.
Of that $32.7 billion surplus, $12.6 billion was approved for property tax reduction, $5 billion went to the Teacher Retirement System for cost-of-living adjustments and supplemental payments, and $5 billion was set aside for public education-related spending. Only $1.1 billion of that $5 billion was allocated to a handful of education bills during the regular session.
With $3.9 billion appropriated for education but not spent, all eyes are on the upcoming special session. While the education community seeks additional funding, including money for increased teacher salaries, Gov. Greg Abbott has said in no uncertain terms that vouchers ("school choice") are his No. 1 public education priority. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate will almost certainly propose another voucher plan and the House will likely oppose it.
It is possible that if a sufficiently robust voucher program doesn’t emerge from this special session, Abbott will call yet another early next year.
We’ve analyzed the unspent education funding from the regular session and found that meaningful teacher and support staff pay raises are within reach, even after including significant increases to formula funding:
A revised revenue estimate from the comptroller could affect how much money is available for legislators to spend on teacher raises during the special session, but constitutional spending limits may stop them from allocating anything above the $3.9 billion that remains from the regular session for public education. Legislators have the option of “busting the cap,” that is, voting to exceed the spending limit, but this requires a high level of support in both chambers and is a rare occurrence.
With a positive report from the comptroller, we can hope the House and Senate will reach an agreement to compensate teachers more fairly in this upcoming special session. But House and Senate divisions on the voucher issue, as well as political undertones arising from the recent impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, may well stand in the way.