AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry and other Texas Republicans angrily called on Congress to strip a state-specific provision in a financial aid package to states, saying the measure will cost Texas schools more than $800 million intended to spare them from layoffs.
The measure, given final approval Thursday by the U.S. Senate, requires Perry to promise Washington that Texas will maintain certain state education spending levels through 2013. Perry says the requirement is unconstitutional because the Texas Constitution prohibits him from committing future legislative spending.
"Washington is deft at placing targets on the backs of Texans, and this proposal paints a target on our school teachers and school children," Perry said. "It is appalling to think other elected officials in Congress, especially Texas' Democratic congressional delegation, would forsake the interests of Texas school children for partisan politics. I urge the House to make sure this measure does not ultimately pass."
The House is scheduled to take up the measure again next week, but changes are not expected. Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Thursday that he'll file a lawsuit against the federal government if the language is not removed.
"We're going to file a suit and I will be pushing. I'd be delighted to be a named plaintiff," Dewhurst said shortly after a meeting with members of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's staff.
Democrats say that it is not unconstitutional and that schools could get the money if Perry would sign off on it.
"There is no constitutional limitation on doing right by our Texas schoolchildren," said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the Austin Democrat who originally crafted the amendment. "The only obligation that this amendment places on Texas is not to penalize our local school districts for receiving federal moneys intended solely for education."
Doggett's amendment has been endorsed by Texas Association of School Boards and other statewide educator groups.
"Compliance is very easy, unless there remains a desire to engage in more of the shenanigans of last year, which replaced state education dollars with federal dollars, leaving our schools no better off than if we had done nothing."
The squabble between Perry, who is seeking re-election, and House Democrats is the latest example of the governor's resisting federal presence in state policy.
Texas' longest-serving governor has slapped at Washington over federal spending, border security, health care, national school standards and other issues, positioning himself as a champion of states' rights.
But lately, Democrats in Washington are pushing back.
In addition to the Texas spending provision in the education bill, President Barack Obama's administration overturned Texas' air permitting program for refineries and petrochemical plants.
Perry has been defiant.
Led by Doggett, Democrats in Congress said they put forth the provision because of the way the state handled federal stimulus dollars last year.
Doggett says state lawmakers used $3.2 billion in federal stimulus money last year to replace state money and ended the legislative session with billions in the state's Rainy Day Fund.
That was an abuse of the intent of the federal stimulus act, Doggett has said. He said his provision was intended to ensure state officials don't divert education dollars to other parts of the budget if they get more federal aid.
The $800 million would help save nearly 13,400 jobs in Texas education, according to estimates from the National Education Association.
Perry's Democratic re-election opponent Bill White said in a campaign statement the move is "another example of Rick Perry failing to protect the interests of Texas in Washington."
Republicans in Texas say it's not fair to make teachers pay for a move that amounts to political payback.
"I'm very disappointed congressional Democrats would hold Texas school children and teachers hostage for an unconstitutional promise," Dewhurst said. "The only thing this flawed legislation guarantees is Texas public schools will miss out on nearly $1 billion in federal education funding."
The move comes at a time when many school districts are finalizing scaled-back budgets for the upcoming year and dipping into reserves to offset stagnant state funding.
"Texas Democrats in the House of Representatives must take corrective action on this next week," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who voted against the bill. "If they don't, they are authorizing an unelected bureaucrat in the Obama administration to spend Texas tax dollars on schools in other states like California and New York. Texas children shouldn't have their education shortchanged because of petty partisan politics and we hope our Democratic colleagues share that sentiment."
Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison also voted against the bill.
Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said the Texas congressional delegation "owes Texas voters an explanation as to why they are in favor of imposing punitive measures on our schools."
Last year, Perry wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, agreeing to take most of the $16 billion in stimulus money earmarked for Texas as part of a bailout for states. The governor engaged in a war of words with Washington a few months later, saying there were too many strings attached to $555 million in unemployment benefits, which he rejected.
"This funding isn't about politics in Washington or Austin; it's about children and getting the resources they need into their classrooms," said Brock Gregg, a lobbyist for the 115,000-member Association of Texas Professional Educators. "The reality is that the pledge the governor has been asked to make is no different in effect than the pledge he made when taking $16 billion in federal stimulus dollars during the last session."
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