The Austin Chronicle

The State's Schoolyard Spats

By Michael King, April 9, 2004, News

Officially, the pending special legislative session on public school finance remained up in the air this week, as Gov. Rick Perry's office said that calling a session remains under consideration but no decision has been made. Whether a session begins by April 19 (as persistently rumored) or some time later, it's even clearer that no "consensus" has emerged among the various parties jockeying for position on school finance.

In his own recent declarations, the governor has continued to emphasize cutting property taxes and imposing a 3% cap on annual reappraisals – while promising that he will soon reveal his proposal on how to replace the missing revenue for schools. He has floated the idea of a "split tax roll" – allowing businesses to be taxed statewide at a different rate than local residential taxes – but the business and anti-tax lobby are howling, so Lege supporters for a split roll are scarce.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spoke to the Association of Texas Professional Educators convention and repeated the phrase "new resources" often enough to sound like he means it. "We're going to have to change the way we pay for our schools," he told an applauding ATPE crowd, adding that they needed to expect some sort of "performance incentive package" (another Perry mantra) to come out of any session. Afterward Dewhurst praised last spring's Senate plan, which would have raised sales taxes to replace the revenue lost by slashing property taxes.

Dewhurst got a much bigger hand when he acknowledged that the Lege "should seriously consider restoring the health care benefits" it had slashed last year for teachers and school employees. It will be hard to defend any new "incentives" program that essentially allocates money previously removed from teachers' pockets. Even before Dewhurst spoke, ATPE (like other teacher groups) had announced its opposition to any special session that does not address substantial new funds for public education – none of the plans floated thus far do so.

The Senate passed its plan unanimously last spring – although with the common knowledge that the House would balk, thereby delivering the solons a free photo-op. Dewhurst might find that unanimity more difficult to deliver this year, and not only because of bitterness over redistricting. The House Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, for example, proposed its own tax cap last week, on sales taxes. The MALC chair, Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said the state already relies too much on sales taxes, "the most regressive tax we have," and also said MALC would press for closing business tax loopholes and insist on maintaining equity for property-poor districts.

"We cannot turn our back on equity," Gallego told a Capitol press conference. "You cannot have a situation where a district like Ysleta in El Paso is watching afar as Alamo Heights or Highland Park create new opportunities for their kids and at the same time essentially are able to tremendously lower the burden on their tax rates."

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