Snake Eyes

As Perry's session goes down in defeat, the rest of Texas gets a victory

Snake Eyes
Illustration By Doug Potter

To nobody's surprise, the special session of the 78th Legislature collapsed of its own weightlessness last week, although the official close of business didn't arrive until Monday. On Friday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and a handful of senators gathered on the South Steps to admit that no omnibus bill on public school finance would be forthcoming in time to meet session deadlines, although Dewhurst put the best face he could on the empty-handed outcome. "We need some more time in order to do a good job," he declared. "The children of Texas deserve no less."

Monday afternoon, after both chambers had adjourned sine die two days early, Dewhurst stood with Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick as the three men vowed, not quite in harmony, to pick up the pieces and move forward. Officially, Dewhurst and Craddick will appoint two new "working groups" (12 members each, six from each chamber, devoted to "reform" and "revenue") to continue negotiations toward a consensus that would allow the governor to call another session soon enough (before September) to allow constitutional amendments to be placed on the November ballot. But even that tentative plan was uncertain – while Perry insisted there is plenty of time to get matters resolved, Craddick and Dewhurst were noncommittal, and the speaker reiterated his belief that House members want first to see what the courts will do.

It's understandable that Craddick and Dewhurst might find dubious Pollyanna Perry's blandishments that there is "consensus on the big issues." Both legislative leaders have said that if (as Perry insists) property taxes are to be cut, then (in the absence of an income tax) some form of broad-based business tax must be created to replace the lost revenue. Asked if that situation had altered his opposition to such a tax, Gov. No ended the press conference with his favorite monosyllable.

Reach for the Cornpone

Lacking consensus or even visible progress, the Capitol air was thick with folksy wisdom. "It is more important to get this issue right than to get it right away," punned the governor, adding that the odds on getting the job done in a single 30-day session had been "longer than those for beating Smarty Jones at Belmont." But Republicans and Democrats alike criticized Perry for abandoning his own condition that there be consensus before he called the session, the lack of same now self-evident.

Craddick tried to follow Perry's lead, but fumbled the handoff: "It's less important that we get something done that will work for the long term than that we get something on the November ballot" – when he meant exactly the opposite, that he frankly sees no rush to shove a bill through the Legislature, with a pending "Robin Hood" case in the courts and with next year's regular session scheduled long before any school finance bill could actually have an effect in the schools.

The Democrats responded with their own bromides, as Alpine Rep. Pete Gallego described Craddick's deference to whatever the courts decide as no more than an attempt to "punt" the Legislature's proper responsibility, and a confession of impotence on the part of the Republican leadership. "As we say in West Texas," the hardly sun-wizened former prosecutor intoned, "If you're going to take credit for the rain, you have to take credit for the drought."

In that vein, the Woeful Weatherman remains Gov. Perry, who not only called the session with utterly inadequate preparation, but who continues to insist on absolutely inconsistent goals: cutting property taxes, improving schools, eliminating Robin Hood, and "protecting the state's friendly business climate" (that is, no new taxes). Next to Perry, Craddick sounds like a no-nonsense realist: "Most members out there want to see property tax reduction," Craddick said. "They want to see more money in the schools – but they don't want to vote for the revenue to fund it."

Harmless It Ain't

It is "liberals," of course, who are supposed to believe in the mythical "free lunch." But in this state government dominated entirely by conservative Republicans, the institutionalized conviction remains that we can maintain a good public school system on the cheap, at least for Other People's Children – that 90% of the 4.1 million students in Texas schools who benefit from the recapture system disdained in Plano and Highland Park, Eanes and Colleyville as "Robin Hood." Last year's mantra was "adequacy" – if we just found out scientifically how much it costs for an "adequate" education, we could cobble that together out of pocket change and bottle caps, and cut property taxes in the bargain. When the leadership's hand-picked researchers came back this year and told them that Texas schools are not yet in whistling distance of "adequacy" and won't be until there is a serious commitment to additional funding ... adequacy suddenly went out the window.

The new mantra has become "Hold Harmless" – a way for Gov. Perry to cut property taxes, feed the gambling lobby, and prevent new business taxes while allowing most public schools to do no better than tread water. The special session collapsed because most legislators of both parties, to their credit, dimly recognize that most of their constituents (and their children) would be worse off under all the proposed alternatives to the current system – at least under any of those alternatives that the governor says he will allow.

As Scott McCown of the Center for Public Policy Priorities pointed out in his testimony to the Senate last week, now or in January the Legislature's charge remains the same, as those principled conservatives who wrote the Texas Constitution made plain. "A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and the rights of the people," they wrote, "it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools. ... All free men, when they form a social compact, have equal rights, and no man, or set of men is entitled to exclusive separate public privileges."

If Gov. Perry truly intends to "eliminate Robin Hood" – that is, equal rights to free public education for all Texans under the law – he needs to take it up with the Founding Fathers. end story

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School Finance, David Dewhurst, Tom Craddick, Rick Perry, Pete Gallego, Robin Hood, recapture, Scott McCown

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