DALLAS - Texas lawmakers could vote as early as today on legislation that would restore Houston's $500 million general obligation bond authorization that was invalidated because of faulty ballot wording.
Lawmakers said they are hopeful the measure could come up for a vote today before the House begins debate over a controversial constitutional amendment that would legalize a wealth-sharing school finance law.
But legislators and city officials are uncertain about the prospects of the bond authorization legislation, noting that only one lawmaker needs to object to kill the bill and that a Houston representative has already threatened to do just that.
"The Senate saw fit to pass this, and I hope the House does the same," said state Sen. Don Henderson, R-Houston, who pushed the validation bill through the upper chamber on Thursday. "This could save the city the cost of a new election, which is $1 million."
The Texas Senate passed the measure unanimously on Thursday afternoon, and that chamber's County Affairs Committee sent it to the full House on Friday. A formal vote had not been scheduled when the Legislature adjourned for the weekend.
Under legislative rules, however, any House member Could kill the bill by calling a point of order. This would be possible because the measure was not on Gov. Ann Richard's formal agenda for the 30-day special session that opened last week.
State Rep. Robert Eckels, R-Houston, said a telephone survey of most members of the Houston delegation showed strong support for the measure.
However. state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said he would oppose the measure and seek instead a new bond election. Turner, who lost the Houston mayor's race last year to Mayor Robert Lanier, was unavailable for comment Friday.
"I hope he doesn't do that," said Sen. Henderson. "The people have already voted on these bonds, and they knew what they were doing."
But one city official was not as optimistic that past differences between the mayor and Turner could be put aside. "This thing will never see the light of day in the House," the source said.
The legislation is narrowly written so that it applies only to the GO bonds approved in a November 1991 election. Voters backed the capital program by a near two-to-one margin.
City officials learned last week that the Texas Attorney General's office would not approve the first $100 million of bonds for sale by yearend because ballot wording violated state law.
The attorney general invalidated the issue, saying that it illegally forced Houston voters to accept unrelated projects, ranging from street repairs to low-income housing, or to reject them all. It is the first time in recent memory that a bond sale has been blocked for using the "all-or-none" language in a referendum.
On Friday, Houston officials said they were surprised the measure had been introduced so quickly because they were still discussing whether to seek a legislative validation of the bonds or a second bond election early next year.
"The [Houston] bill hasn't been put on the calendar yet, so I can't say when it will come up for sure," said an aide to House Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth. "Most likely it's going to come up for a vote before the school bill or wait until we are finished with that business."
The debate over the school finance law, meanwhile, is expected to be divisive. Lewis and others say that no plan yet has the required 100 votes to pass the House and be put on the the spring ballot.
Under the Texas Constitution, an amendment must receive two-thirds approval from the House and Senate to be put before voters. The measure must then receive simple majority approval to become law.
On Thursday, the Senate voted 29-to-2 to send the amendment to the House, where some predict a stalemate.
Backed by the governor and legislative leaders, the school finance law is known as the Fair Share Plan and would fund Texas schools by shifting an estimated $400 million a year from the wealthiest 10% of districts to help poor schools.
However, school administrators and lawmakers from rich and poor districts alike have criticized the plan because it lacks any additional state-level funding. And some have predicted it would force schools to raise as much as $3 billion in new local property taxes over a two-year period.
The Texas Supreme Court has said it will close the state's schools unless lawmakers develop a constitutional school finance law by June 1993. Earlier this year, justices struck down the latest proposal in an eight-year legal battle for a fair school funding law.
Late last week, another lawmaker introduced an alternative plan to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would empower the Legislature and not the courts to decide what was equitable funding. The proposal was quickly denounced by lawmakers as unworkable, while others called it "racist" because they believe it would deny quality education to heavily minority districts.
"There's going to be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth before this is all over with," a lobbyist said after the special session. "They'll either work it out or go home for Christmas knowing they've failed."