Thursday, July 7, 2005
Under House-passed school plan, poor will pay more
El Paso Times
AUSTIN -- More than 200,000 of El Paso's poorest families would pay more taxes under a bill House legislators approved Wednesday on a razor-thin vote of 73-72.
"The history of Texas has always denied equality to the poor," said Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, who voted against the measure.
The bill is the second of a two-part plan to revamp the way Texas pays for its schools. It would replace cuts in school property taxes with increased and expanded state sales and business taxes. The bill must be approved a second time in the House and by the Senate before going to the governor for approval.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back to Austin last month after they couldn't agree on a plan to overhaul the $33 billion state school-funding system during the regular legislative session, which ended in May.
Perry vetoed more than $35 billion legislators budgeted for education for the next two years, hoping to spur lawmakers to find a solution. Lawmakers also approved a budget bill that would restore that funding later Wednesday evening.
The House and Senate have both already passed different versions of a bill that would give schools an additional $3 billion over the next two years, increase teacher pay and push back the school starting date.
All the El Paso representatives, except Moreno, voted for the reform plan last week. During the regular session, the delegation opposed the bill.
The House tax plan lawmakers debated Wednesday would reduce the cap on school property taxes from $1.50 per $100 in property valuation to $1.23 per $100 in 2005 and to $1.12 in 2006.
To make up for the more than $7 billion in property tax revenue the state would lose over those two years, the bill would increase the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent, making it the highest in the nation. All five El Paso representatives voted against the tax bill.
"This is a damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, said Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. "What this bill is supposed to be doing is really trying to reduce property taxes."
Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, called the plan the "great tax shift," which relieves tax burden for the wealthy while penalizing the poor.
Based on 2003 census numbers and a Legislative Budget Board analysis of the tax-swap bill, about 94 percent of El Paso households would see an increase in their tax spending.
About 205,000 El Paso households would see their tax payments rise, while the wealthiest 12,000 would see a property-tax reduction.
"To me, that's not fair, and we will fight it," Shapleigh said.
The most equitable way to pay for schools, he said, is a state income tax, which Shapleigh has been touting for more than two years with little success.
If the bill is approved in the House again today, it will move to the Senate for debate.
Brandi Grissom may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org