Point Austin: The Definition of Insanity
Waiting for the Legislature to finally do its duty on school finance
Fresh from reviewing the News staff's upbeat interviews with the incoming Central Texas legislative delegation – Democrats all – I began the year ready to believe that the 86th Legislature was indeed going to be different. Reactionaries would retreat, open misogyny would return to the shadows, racism would be kept at arm's length, and the Capitol might actually accomplish some progress on school funding, health care, transportation ...
Well, maybe. In the wake of the past week's events and with the session barely getting into gear, my credulous optimism is already looking a bit threadbare. Unsurprisingly, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick provided an initial balloon-puncture with his absence from opening day festivities in order to join President Donald Trump at the White House to show his solidarity and receive instructions on immigration and the Great Border Wall. Patrick returned to Texas to say that not only does he support the object of Trump's obsession, but he also offered to have Texas take the job off Trump's hands and (his spokesman told The Texas Tribune) "build the wall in the areas where it is needed."
Even Gov. Greg Abbott, no shrinking violet on "border security," rolled his eyes at Patrick's "hypothetical with no conclusion." Patrick did grab some headlines on a day that otherwise would have belonged to newly elected Speaker of the Texas House Dennis Bonnen, enjoying a media honeymoon as a seeker of bipartisanship. That's another "we'll-see" – a few days later, Abbott, Patrick, and Bonnen met at the Governor's Mansion and delivered a back-slapping benediction to their one-party rule. Patrick set the autocratic tone: "If the three of us are aligned that we are going to accomplish a mission and pass legislation, it happens. And if the three of us are aligned that something isn't going to pass, then it doesn't happen."
There's a touching portrait of representative democracy in action.
Back in 2004, state District Judge John Dietz declared the Texas system of funding public schools to be unconstitutional, failing to fulfill its foundational responsibility of a sufficient and equitable education for all Texans. "The Court declares," wrote Dietz, "that the State's school finance system is neither financially efficient nor efficient in the sense of providing for the mandated adequate education nor the statutory regime of accreditation, accountability, and assessment." Not much has changed in the subsequent 15 years, although each new biennium has been thick with assurances that this time, they'll get it right.
Nevertheless, in 2013 Dietz issued a similar ruling, repeating, "[E]ducation costs money but ... ignorance costs more money. ... The problems only get worse the longer we wait." He was overruled, of course, by the state Supreme Court, with this condescending justification: "Our Byzantine school funding 'system' is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements."
Once again, we're hearing the biennial promises. Abbott told the public that the GOP Triumvirate will solve "intractable issues that have been plaguing the state of Texas for decades": "reforming our school finance system ... [and] reforming property taxes." "Reforming," in this context, is a term of art (Molly Ivins often preferred to substitute "deforming"). Actually reforming school finance, by any sane implication, would mean finding ways and means of greatly increasing state funding to public schools; by "reforming property taxes," however, Abbott means finding ways of preventing local jurisdictions (school districts as well as cities) from raising sufficient means to provide the funding that the state refuses to allocate.
Contradictory at the Outset
So, in plain English, the current plan is along the lines of quitting your job in order to increase your income: Cut property taxes and increase school funding. If you think that sounds contradictory at the outset, you're beginning to understand Texas politics.
As Dietz told the Texas Observer in 2016, "If they had to pass a tax increase, and they pass a tax increase and the public runs them out of office, OK. But I think their oath is to preserve the Constitution. It's not to get re-elected. Goddamn! What is more important than education?"
Over the next few months, we'll learn the answer to the judge's question. I'd like to believe that sufficient numbers of legislators will look in the mirror and tell themselves, "There are some things more important than re-election." Based on nearly 30 years of Capitol reporting, I remain more than a trifle skeptical that will happen. My best guess is that we'll hear a lot of huffing and puffing about putting more money in schools, there will be more hand-wringing and histrionic pandering about border security, and Abbott and Patrick will begin publicly harrumphing and privately twisting arms over property taxes ... and the result will be a cosmetic resolution that kicks the school funding can down the road again.
Maybe this time, they'll prove me wrong. Nevertheless, nobody's ever gone broke betting against the better angels of the Texas Legislature.