Thursday, July 14, 2005

Keeping a scorecard at the Lege


Thursday, July 14, 2005

In the 2005 Legislature's version of "Groundhog Day," Republican leaders are wrestling again behind closed doors over how Texas manages and funds public schools.

They will reach deals, or not, before the 30-day special session ends next week. But we can suss out now what's vanished like a Bobby Abreu power shot.

Gone: Any broad new business tax, though corporate-owned partnerships could be required to pay the corporate franchise tax, with partnerships owned by individuals remaining exempt. Gov. Rick Perry, who opposes new taxes that could hurt job creation, endorsed the patch path last month.

The Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, representing businesses, calls the change uneven.

"If you're going to have a business tax, it should apply to all businesses equally, not just corporations," chief economist Dale Craymer said.

Gone: The celebratory 2003 vow of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and senators to halve local school property taxes to 75 cents per $100 valuation while improving financial equity among school districts with a statewide property tax.

At the time, an aide to House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, gave the Senate's scheme no chance.

"It's like rolling a body out of the morgue and saying, This is going to be our wide receiver,' " he said.

Wise guy, sure. Yet the latest House and Senate plans cut maximum tax rates for school operations to $1.10 at best. And voters can add 15 pennies of taxes for local needs. And the plans raise sales, tobacco and other taxes paid disproportionately by lower-income households. Possibly gone: Earmarked money for textbooks. Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, envisions districts choosing how to spend money best. Publishers with books awaiting delivery (they share photos of stacked tomes) fear financial wedgies. Grusendorf said: "One way or another, they will sell those books."

Gone: The notion that in the 150-member House and 31-member Senate, single votes don't count. Craddick and Dewhurst kept tax plans alive with their ayes. Craddick was no surprise, but

Dewhurst intoning was a stunner, especially since, in doing so, he surrendered his long-held hope for creating a broad employer tax to replace the franchise tax.

Gone: Public negotiations at the end of legislative sessions. In 1995, the last time lawmakers made sweeping changes to education law, a House-Senate conference committee sweated through issues in public. This year, leaders are huddling privately -- though not so secretively that they couldn't be spotted ambling in and out of a second-floor room. Location happens to be the Governor's Press Conference Room.

Never gone: School funding and taxes as trouble.

For starters, the Texas Supreme Court is weighing an Austin judge's call for more school aid and less dependence on property taxes.

The Supremes established their school finance role by declaring the old system inequitable in 1989, two-plus years before "Groundhog Day" premiered. If the court finds fault again, Perry could yank legislators in for another 30-day run.; 445-3644

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