State GOP in a rut over schools; pundits blame no-new-taxes pledge
09:41 PM CDT on Saturday, August 13, 2005
By CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – For three years, the pledge to lower property taxes and fix schools has splintered the Legislature, shredded its leaders and, for the $5 million cost of three special sessions, produced exactly nothing for taxpayers or schoolchildren.
But it has prompted state leaders to produce competing radio ads, denunciations of one another and enough posturing to turn a schoolyard squabble into a statewide embarrassment for Republicans – and that assessment comes from GOP stalwarts.
In its biggest test of governing since winning all state offices in 2002, the GOP has been spinning its wheels and testing the patience of voters.
Former state GOP Chairman Fred Meyer, who spent decades building the party to its present dominance, called the situation "ridiculous."
"I'm sure not a happy camper that we have been unable to pass meaningful, constructive education legislation. ... I'm embarrassed about it," Mr. Meyer said. "I don't think it bodes well for our political future."
Said Republican consultant Bill Miller: "It's a car stuck on high center, and it's in gear and the wheels are going, but there is no traction. You wonder what the driver's thinking. Either stop the car or move it so you can get somewhere."
Legislators will take one last long shot this week, but after that, they're likely to wait until the Texas Supreme Court forces them to change the school funding system. And until then, Republican lawmakers will be back in their districts, awaiting political fallout as well.
Read their lips
Many pollsters, politicians, consultants and civic leaders say that one central issue has caused the quagmire: the Republican no-new-taxes pledge. Funding schools, always a difficult task, and even the politically desirable effort to slash property taxes have been rendered all but impossible.
Dallas lawyer Michael Boone, an adviser to Republican leaders on school finance for 14 years, said that his party's leaders boxed themselves into a corner.
Excuses don't fly with constituents
More School Finance
"The biggest problem was the governor said he would veto anything that raised taxes," Mr. Boone said.
"You cannot eliminate Robin Hood, keep equity, reduce property taxes substantially and adequately fund the schools back to the level where they need to be, and say there will be zero – neutral taxes – at the end. That's the fundamental problem," he said.
Thirty-five House members, including Speaker Tom Craddick, and four senators, all Republican, have signed a no-new-taxes pledge advanced by national anti-tax guru Grover Norquist. The governor has visited with Mr. Norquist on numerous occasions, even taking him on a retreat to the Bahamas.
Mr. Perry said there is a way to reduce property taxes and put new money into schools without raising the overall tax burden. The plan, which would increase sales taxes, would put $2.25 billion more into schools and $7 billion into property tax reduction. School officials have complained that the money they get is barely enough to cover inflation.
"If the critics say that's not enough money, I can't address that in an appropriate fashion," Mr. Perry told The Dallas Morning News in an interview Friday. "Those who say, 'We have to have $8 billion new dollars into the system before we're satisfied,' well, I can't make them satisfied."
Mr. Craddick and others have noted that when Democrats ran the state, they, too, needed a push from judges before changing school funding. Mr. Boone said Democrats deserve some of the blame for the current mess for refusing to adequately fund education when they were in charge of the Legislature, causing the costs to continually be shoved onto property owners. But now, he said, the bills are due.
"You've got to pay the piper," he said. "It's got to begin and end with leadership. Our schools are dying. It's a fact. They're suffocating them to death."
Republican chiefs will not tackle the antiquated state tax system because it would require a new, broad-based business tax, which Mr. Boone favors, or an income tax, which he knows is political kryptonite.
"They cannot lead and cannot be led. They've all been Norquist-ed," Mr. Boone said.
University of Texas political science professor Bruce Buchanan said the first session of all-Republican rule in 2003 was easier because lawmakers dealt primarily with ideological issues – redistricting, abortion restrictions and lawsuit limits.
"Nobody had to sacrifice anything, pay anything or raise any taxes," he said
If anything, Republicans relished a chance to demonstrate fiscal toughness by closing a $10 billion budget shortfall without new taxes. But the no-new-tax doctrine is in conflict with improving schools, limiting the share-the-wealth education funding system, cutting property taxes and paying for more accountability in education, Dr. Buchanan said.
"They're up against a painful reality here, and that is that you can't have a decent – let alone quality – education system without paying for it," he said.
But any political damage could be slight. PTAs, parents and primary opponents are gaining steam, which has to worry sitting legislators. But top GOP leaders show little concern because, Dr. Buchanan said, "even if they get different Republicans in, they're still Republicans, and the party is in pretty good shape regardless of what they do."
With November general elections more than a year away, and with the Texas Supreme Court expected to rule on the adequacy of state spending for schools in the next few months, legislators will have ample time to rise to the occasion. Voters mostly will have forgotten the flailing of the recent sessions, said Mike Baselice, a Republican pollster whose clients include Mr. Perry.
For the March primaries, Mr. Baselice said, he expects that incumbents will stress what they have attempted to accomplish.
"None of this is lost or wasted. It's all valuable in that it helps us turn and look under every stone for the nugget we're looking for," he said.
He said the governor's leadership has been unfairly challenged.
"He should be given credit for bringing the chambers back on several occasions," Mr. Baselice said, referring to the three special sessions Mr. Perry has ordered on school finance. "Not getting something done shouldn't be looked at as a failure. It should be looked upon as, we tried to improve the system, and we're still working on it. It's not done."
But the conspicuous failures, said Democratic pollster Jeff Montgomery, have given Republican challenger Carole Keeton Strayhorn something to talk about in the governor's race.
"It's clear to me that this is Perry's race to lose," Mr. Montgomery said. "But he's allowing her a little crack in the door to walk through."
It's given the Democrats something to bandy about, too.
"Rick Perry is an inspiring leader," said former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell in announcing his political intentions. "In fact, he's inspired me to run for governor."
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