Tribune Festival Notes

Legislative aftermath: Hard to run a state without revenue

Tribune Festival Notes

In Texas Tribune Festival sessions on public education and health care, the persistent subtext reflected that hard times made budgeting difficult. Official forecast? More of the same …

Took in a few Texas Tribune Festival panels this weekend (didn't feel terribly festive, but you can't blame them for trying). The conference features four themes: Race & Immigration, Health & Human Services, Public & Higher Education, Energy & Environment, with panels held in venues on the UT-Austin campus, close enough to shuttle among or else camp out at your public policy obsession.

We caught two Saturday panels on Public Ed. The Tribune's Ross Ramsey hosted Saturday's session on Public Ed ("Lessons Learned" at the 82nd Lege), with two state reps (Rob Eissler of The Woodlands, Dan Branch of Dallas) and two senators (Plano's Florence Shapiro, Laredo's Judith Zaffirini).

Short version: Zaffirini held her own, but she was outnumbered.

Ramsey began simply enough with a question: Can we fix it?

Shapiro (who announced her retirement last week, leaving one less experienced "moderate" in the Senate) said state's mistake is "one size fits all" solutions. Eissler (who spent much of his time making lame jokes) noted that despite more than a thousand school districts, the Top 10 educate 1 million students (of 4.3 million). Nobody noted that practicality of charter schools hits a wall at those numbers.

Zaffirini said she abhors the word "reform" in relation to higher education, because it's neither "broken nor corrupt." Others attempted to dodge the term until later, when Zaffirini said she couldn't support GOP budget. Branch said education faces three major challenges: fiscal pressure of rising costs, the digital revolution, and accountability.

Asked by Ramsey what "one thing" might each do to improve system: Shapiro: "mandate parental involvement" (although we can't); Eissler: even out the funding formulas among districts; Zaffirini: "if money were no object," would make early childhood ed and higher ed a right for all Texans; Branch: would enhance (higher ed) completion rates, both quantity and quality.

Predictably, the consensus split hardest at funding, with all three Republicans insisting that there is plenty of money in the system, if we just spend if correctly. Eissler most adamant, with an analogy out of Moneyball, but unintentionally making it plain that he has neither seen the movie nor read the book, and knows even less about baseball. Shapiro touted her "parent trigger" bill, which will make it easier to close or privatize schools with parental intervention (currently being tried in California). She insisted that "every new child" in the system has been paid for (even with the $4 billion in cuts), and Branch simply insisting, "We had to make cuts." Said Zaffirini, "Elections have consequences" and that with this GOP majority, it was the best budget that could be done. "I voted against the budget for the first time in 25 years," not only because of the cuts, but because of the refusal to use the Rainy Day Fund.

Next panel, on How to Pay for Public Ed, odds a little more even: Houston Rep. Scott Hochberg and Center for Public Policy Priority's Scott McCown facing off against Houston talk-show host and Sen. Dan Patrick and Texas Public Policy Foundation fiscal policy director (and former Katy Rep.) Talmadge Heflin. Most heated exchanges between Patrick and McCown, over who is and is not paying taxes, and whether there's a racial element (older Anglo property owners vs. minority students).

There was much to say, but 2013 Lege prospects most telling in proposals from Patrick and Heflin. Patrick says he wants higher sales taxes, lower property taxes. Heflin says we should abolish property taxes as well as business (margins/franchise) tax, and raise sales taxes, which could be set at about nine cents. Neither suggested how we might pay for the fancy UT Student Activity Center auditorium we were all sitting in, with a tax system that cannot hope to fund a 21st Century education system.

With friends like these, public education in Texas has none.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Texas Tribune Festival, Public Education, Texas Tribune, Public Schools, Judith Zaffirini, Florence Shapiro, Dan Branch, Rob Eissler, Legislature, Talmadge Heflin, Dan Patrick, CPPP, TPPF, Scott McCown

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