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A few modest school-finance proposals

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MEA CULPA! This column has long maintained that Gov. Rick Perry lacks courage, vision, concern, common sense, and basic human decency. We've gone so far as to make cheap jokes about his hair (What will be left after a nuclear war? Cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Gov. Perry's hair). But recently he has proven how narrow our vision is.

What could be more courageous than coming out against a state income tax in Texas? Ignoring huge budget shortfalls, underfunded public education, and already inadequate (yet ever more deteriorating) social and human services, Perry stands as Horatio at the bridge, battling back the statewide demand for an income tax, determined to preserve the benefits conferred by the state's regressive and rotting tax system. Instead, showing the very concern we've accused him of lacking, he's gone a step further, proposing to bring property-tax relief in a way that will prove especially generous to the most prosperous Texans.

A mummy wrapped in the shrouds of casual humanism, I've missed the obvious. Sure, I believe in God, and the religious values by which I was raised – and, I hope, am raising my son – inform every aspect of my life. But whereas I'm a believer, I'm not really a Believer. My God does not daily walk among us, regularly approving my moral choices while condemning my neighbors; my God does not have a clear opinion in partisan political races or weigh in on international diplomacy, political machinations, and aggressive military actions. How shallow a belief I have and a believer I am, you must be thinking. Not at all like those deeply committed, religious-right Republicans who interact with God on a daily basis in such an intimate way that I think the Lord is even asked to help with grocery brand choices. In shame, I meditate on how I used to think it the most spiritually outrageous, anti-God blasphemy when the smugly self-righteous among us argued that you couldn't both believe and vote Democrat. Well, now I've seen the Rush Limbaugh light, in which "petty" and "piety" are the same, with only their spellings inconvenienced by two different letters of the alphabet.

What I've missed is the Mother Teresa godliness of many Republican politicians, accepting as they do that God is involved in every decision, has a clear opinion on every issue, and offers constant approval or disapproval of every choice. In this context, it is obvious that those of us who have, deserve; those of us who don't have, shouldn't. Tax breaks for the wealthy are a form of prayer.

In this light, the Alaska House member who recently inserted in the highway bill the building of two bridges to nowhere at the cost of a couple of billion dollars was modest about his achievements and devotion. He bragged about delivering pork to his state, claiming the unnecessary bridges (one will actually make the trip to a small airport longer than the current ferry ride) would create hundreds of jobs that would last as long as four years. Face facts, folks: Two billion dollars spent on the social safety net (currently being gutted) would create a lot more than hundreds of jobs, potentially benefiting thousands of families. What this pious believer left out was that a handful of Alaskan suppliers and contractors will be making tens of millions in profits off these projects. What can be more Christian than following God's plan as it is so obviously laid out by our current economic status and family wealth? The Republican religious-right mantra: "From the many to the few."

Our own guv is just as passionately committed to fulfilling God's plan. If the Lord wanted everyone educated, why would we need schools? Wouldn't they just know? Clearly, public education is the devil's work, supported by America-hating, God-detesting secular humanists determined to convert all of us to atheism and the Democratic Party. Few could argue that the current Robin Hood plan is an effective way of financing public schools, but how many would have the courage to take a counterintuitive giant step in the other direction by suggesting cutting the already inefficient, inequitable, and regressive property-tax system? Perry's genius here, which has made me realize how wrongly I've denied him the accolade of "visionary," is suggesting sin taxes as the alternative. Lesser folks might be worried about being accused of blatant hypocrisy in arguing for funding children's education by taxing the very aspects of human nature that pious Republicans claim to despise. Moving from the unbalanced inadequacies of property tax as funding source to an even more ill-defined, ever-fluctuating one would seem immorally disingenuous if at the same time your party was not determined both to legislate against these lifestyle choices and to destroy public education.

Thank God (literally) that the state, in all its prescient wisdom, diverted most of the tobacco settlement funds away from anti-smoking education, which is an inherently and self-righteously corrupt activity anyway. In the same way I feel so comfortable with television commercials and billboards urging Texans to gamble on the lottery (which is evidently sanctified in a way all other forms of gambling are not), I look forward to similar campaigns if the guv's plan passes: shots of an overcrowded classroom, close-ups on outdated, worn textbooks, with a voiceover saying, "If you care about educating Texas' children, you'll go out to a strip club tonight."

Along the same lines, I'd like to offer some thoughts to the governor and Legislature on some additional revenue sources.

MARIJUANA: Sure it's illegal, but since it's natural and grows wild, that's man's, not God's, decision. Currently, an ounce of excellent pot goes for around $400 to $500. When I was a kid, one cost around $10. Certainly, the cost of cultivation hasn't gone up that much. Isn't it time to legalize, so the "sin tax" on pot already being paid by users goes to educating young Texans rather than buying a few drug dealers ever more exotic and expensive stereo equipment?

MARRIAGE: I'm not even hinting that there is anything about being gay that has to do with sin (though certainly many on the right say that it does). Rather than a contentious, polarizing national debate over a Declaration of Independence-bowdlerizing constitutional amendment that negates the core constitutional guarantees, however, why not just a marriage tax? A minimal amount charged for a man marrying a woman, a much more substantial tag for same-sex marriages.

DIVORCE: None of us really likes it; let's make some money off of it. Certainly, substantial penalties for same-sex couples seeking divorce, factoring in the we-didn't-want-it-to-be-allowed-in-the-first-place and we-told-you-so attitudes. Then a gradated tax structure for everyone else. The tax consequence should start with the most affluent being charged the least (as a break-up is more likely to result in two separate households contributing financially to our trickle-down economy). By sizable increments, the financial liability should increase, concluding with stiflingly large penalties for the poorest, especially those with children, as their separations are the most likely to inflict some cost on the public.

DEATH PENALTY: Not a tax on the killers themselves, but let's use some imagination. People around the world opposing the death penalty are not shy about sharing their opinions with Texans. The topic regularly comes up in conversations when one is traveling abroad. As a media outlet, the Chronicle receives frequent admonishments on this policy from around the world, often in organized national waves; we will get a number of letters from Germany for several months, then, sometime later, another wave from Italy. When our Canadian neighbors e-mail us that they are boycotting Texas until it is repealed, I respond – thanking them for their thoughtfulness in staying out of Texas, given how overrun with people and cars the state already is, and asking if they could talk more Canadians into joining them.

I'm not being so crass as to suggest one could buy someone out of the death penalty by paying a tax. Instead, the state could levy an annual tax, the rate calculated on a case-by-case basis, based on the crime and circumstances, to keep a death row inmate alive for a year. This wouldn't actually commute any sentences, just impact execution timetables. If at some point a prisoner's tax fund didn't "make," the execution would be carried out. This has the enormous advantage over all the other suggestions in that it would attract substantial out-of-state and out-of-country funds. Imagine the kind of revenue generator advertising campaigns could be in certain European countries: "Prisoner X's tax to stay alive this year lacks only 10 million euros. If you don't contribute toward reaching that goal, those crazy Texans will kill him."

Just consider our governor's vision: Instead of outlawing activity, which just makes for an ever more restrictive society that must bear the enormous costs of enforcement, arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment, let's simply tax the hell out of any activity we don't like! For example: DWI – a base tax, then an even greater amount not to lose your license, with the tariff raised to a devastating level if injury was caused to another. Bless Gov. Perry; he has pointed the way to a society that can continue to function, yet eliminate broad-based taxation. Not only will this fulfill God's will by helping protect the fortunes of the richest among us (so clearly blessed by God – when not too busy licking and closing envelopes for campaign mailings sent out attacking Democrats), but the libertarians should love it.

While in this revisionist confessional mode, I must acknowledge the power of our president's perspective. In denouncing the Iraq/Vietnam comparisons, he has once again demonstrated the wisdom of one whose whole life has been determined by a boundaryless intellectual curiosity. The Vietnam War was driven by the domino theory that all of Southeast Asia (formerly Indo-China) would follow the Chinese lead to communism. Bush, well aware that Asian unity was a fiction, acknowledging not just the ethnic/national hostilities between the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, but the centuries-old, unbridgeable antipathy between the Chinese and Indo-Chinese, recognizes the inadequacy of such a comparison. Instead, though there are sectarian (such as Sunni and Shiite), ethnic (such as Arab and Pakistani), and historical (Turks and Kurds) divisions, the Muslim world boasts huge communities of common religious interest independent of borders and not defined solely by nationalism. In context of this harmony and internationalism, the American misadventure in Vietnam, despite ideological resonance of communism throughout the world, is best considered as a parochial conflict restricted by geographic definitions. The conflict in Iraq suffers no such limits.

Finally, on behalf of the entire staff, we offer our congratulations to Chronicle Production Manager Karen Rheudasil and Webmaster Brian Barry, who were married last Friday. Our warmest wishes for a wonderful lifetime together. end story

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Rick Perry, Texas school finance, Texas Legislature, Texas special session 2004, property tax, religious right, Iraq war Vietnam, Karen Rheudasil, Brian Barry

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