Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday that Texas is making no promises it will roll back any of the deep state spending cuts imposed during past economic doldrums, even to soften the blow of $5.4 billion in funding sliced from public schools two years ago.
The governor said there's no obligation to restore funding levels reduced the last time the Legislature convened in 2011 or those imposed amid the depths of the national recession before that, even as a stronger economy has given lawmakers billions of dollars more to work with as they now head back to work.
"I frankly don't understand the concept that we have to come in and we have to fund every line item at or above the level of which we do," Perry said at state Capitol news conference with fellow Republicans House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who oversees the state Senate.
"We come in and we prioritize," Perry said, "and what may have been a priority four years ago may not be as big a priority."
Last session, the still-sluggish economy left lawmakers facing a $27 billion budget shortfall that led to across-the-board cuts, causing layoffs of state employees and reductions in services.
And this time, "my bet, not everybody's going to be happy about where we spend our money," Perry said. But he added: "If we were failing in the budgeting of our taxpayer dollars people would not be moving here in record numbers."
Lawmakers in 2011 voted to cut $5.4 billion in state funding to public schools and educational grants for pre-kindergarten and other programs, triggering a sharp drop in the amount Texas spends per-pupil and marking the first time since World War II that funding did not keep up with increasing student enrollment growth statewide. A booming population means schools across Texas add an average of 80,000 students per year.
More than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of the state's 5 million-plus public school students are suing the state, claiming that the cuts make the formula used to fund education so inadequate and inequitable that it violates state constitutional guarantees.
The GOP holds majorities in both the state House and Senate, but Democrats are clamoring that additional state revenue could give Texas a chance to undo some of the 2011 cuts to schools. Perry countered, however, that state funding for schools over the past 10 years increased at a rate three times that of enrollment growth.
"I think under any scenario the last decade, the funding that we have seen in the state of Texas for public education has been pretty phenomenal," he said.
Perry also said: "I don't imagine that we're ever going to quit having arguments about 'Are we spending enough money?' or 'Are we spending it in the right places?,' but I would suggest to you that, in the last decade, Texas has done a very good job of funding public school education."
The governor had breakfast Wednesday with Dewhurst and Straus and the trio agreed that the improved economic outlook means it's time to push for tax cuts.
But addressing reporters after Perry's comments, Dewhurst broke ranks somewhat, saying: "At the end of the day, we're going to be putting more resources into public education."
He said the lawsuits, which are being heard in state district court but will likely be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, will eventually give lawmakers a figure the state will have to spend per-pupil to adequately fund schools.
Straus, meanwhile, has already promised to increase funding to schools enough to cover enrollment growth — requiring at least an extra $2 billion.
Dewhurst also wants to take $1 billion from the state's cash reserves, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for projects to improve water infrastructure in a state frequently plagued by drought — a plan Perry said Wednesday he supports. The lieutenant governor also spoke about improving highways and education, ideas Straus seconded.
"We have some unfinished business from last session to take care of," Straus said. "In a growing state, we have to take care of some priorities."