John Young, Opinion page editor WACO HERALD-TRIBUNE
Thursday, June 02, 2005
If I were a child I'd feel used.
I'd feel my cheeks were chaffed from pinching. I'd feel my scalp was sore from tousling.
And now, as I sat on the curb, abandoned by the 79th Texas Legislature, I'd think: The next politician who lays a finger gets bit.
Children, particularly schools, were what this was supposed to be about, this Legislature. And yet this week the 79th adjourned without Job 1.
But understand: Children weren't what it was about. Tax relief for a select few is what it was all about.
That's why a district judge's order looms: Shut down schools Oct. 1 for want of an equitable and adequate means of paying for them.
A Republican Supreme Court could deliver a reprieve to those who would do nothing. Or leadership could arrive at an epiphany that brings everyone back for a special session.
The latter seems unlikely for one reason: Children and schools aren't what this was about. Taxes were.
Before issuing demerits on that count, let's give lawmakers partial credit. They did try to make Texas's business tax, in which only one in six pays anything, more equitable and more a reflection of today's economy.
But toward funding schools and having the state assume more of the tax burden, the record will show that lawmakers couldn't pull it off. They were too greedy.
Hooked on a fraction
The Republican leadership wouldn't budge from the idea of cutting the state's maximum property tax rate by one-third. Why one-third? Why not one-fourth? Why not one-sixth?
Cutting the property tax by a third meant the state had to find $8 billion in new taxes to make up the difference. Finding a bicameral consensus on getting there was beyond this Legislature's doing.
The irony is that when all the alternative taxes were computed, including a sales tax hike of between a penny (House version) and a half-cent (Senate), any tax relief was reserved only for those with great property wealth.
Sales taxes (and excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, or snacks) hit the poorest and middle class hardest. Period. The Senate, to its credit, chose not to lean so heavily on such a regressive device.
So no deal, said the House, not liking the flavor of business tax the Senate offered to make up the half-penny.
But schools weren't the only area where lawmakers let children down.
Many lawmakers made a big deal over moves to restore cuts in the Children's Health Insurance Program. Cuts in 2003 not only left children uninsured but left millions of federal dollars on the table.
The fact is that every 2003 vintage impediment to CHIP enrollment, such as requiring re-enrollment every six months, remains in place despite State Sen. Kip Averitt's effort to return it to the more forgiving 12 months.
The end result, based on Legislative Budget Board projections, is that though rolls will rise, in 2007 Texas will have 108,000 fewer on CHIP than before the 2003 cuts.
Child Protective Services was another area in which lawmakers will claim they did the right thing. And in degrees, they did. Still, with one of the most miserly human services budgets in the nation, we had this sadly comedic situation:
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Steve Ogden, said at one point that the $253 million requested by Gov. Rick Perry for improved child protection was more than the Department of Health and Human Services could spend over two years.
HHS Commissioner Albert Hawkins cleared his throat and begged to differ. Find a use for that money? Oh, yes. Cash-strapped CPS can do that. Regardless, the final budget authorizes $175 million.
OK, that's a lot better than nothing – a lot better than what the 79th Legislature did for school finance reform.
All totaled, if I were a child in this sprawling state of tall towers, big herds and boundless resources, my cheeks would be chapped.
John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 Cox Texas Newspapers, L.P. - The Waco Tribune-Herald