Sunday, August 21, 2005

GOP cedes Robin Hood

08/21/2005 12:00 AM CDT

Peggy Fikac and Gary Scharrer
Express-News Austin Bureau

AUSTIN — When Republicans secured their dominance of the statehouse nearly three years ago, they painted a target on the Robin Hood school funding system that requires property-rich school districts to share with the poor.

Two regular sessions, three school-finance special sessions and one court ruling later, Robin Hood lives — the beneficiary in large part of GOP infighting over how to raise the state taxes needed to change the system's reliance on local school property taxes.

"When everything was said and done, there was more said than done," said Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, at the center of the battle to raise billions in state taxes to lower local school property taxes.

"It's all about money. It's hard to make the deal run when you're not robbing those rich folks like Robin," he said.

Just having House and Senate majorities and the key to the Governor's Mansion is a far cry from holding together lawmakers in the traditionally tax-shy party, especially on an issue like school finance that lawmakers have noted turns more on local concerns than party lines.

"We do have a majority of folks who are like-minded," said Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio. "When it comes to school finance, it's a little more problematic than that."

GOP leaders insisted any money raised from new state taxes be used only to lower local school property taxes, but local school officials pressed for more funding than could be found without additional state tax revenue.

Democrats and some Republicans, meanwhile, resisted tax-swap plans that analyses showed would benefit the highest-income Texans, since everyone else would pay more in new state taxes than they would benefit from lower school property taxes.

With the public education community united against proposed school changes and the business lobby also putting up a fight against the tax bill, too many legislators lost their will "to resist all of that," said veteran Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson.

"We needed strong leadership, and we needed to move quickly. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to do something," Hill said.

Even some GOP resistance is significant in a House with a fairly tight majority and a Senate where a tradition requiring a two-thirds vote to bring up legislation means some Democratic support is necessary for measures to pass.

The end came after some House Republicans deserted the leadership to support an alternate school funding plan pushed by Democrats. It would have used some new state tax money to give teachers a bigger pay raise and grant lower- and middle-class homeowners more of a local tax break.

GOP leaders killed the school plan, and the related tax-swap plan also went down in defeat.

"We don't have a Republican team," Swinford said. "We've got a Republican group."

Many now believe Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who alone has the power to call lawmakers into special session, will wait to do so again until after the Texas Supreme Court issues a ruling on the school finance system.

The high court is reviewing a judge's ruling that the system, which relies heavily on local school property taxes, is unconstitutional. State District Judge John Dietz of Travis County preserved both the Robin Hood system and the equity that it created for property rich and poor schools.

But he said the state relies so much on the local property tax that it amounts to an unconstitutional statewide property tax, and that the state doesn't adequately fund education.

House Speaker Tom Craddick has urged the wait for a court decision, noting that past Legislatures — dominated by Democrats — had court guidance in making tough school-finance decisions. Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have said that's not their first choice.

GOP leaders' school-finance measure, while not dedicating new tax money to schools, would have carved out new funding from the existing revenue stream. Some lawmakers don't want to spend that set-aside money before the court rules, Craddick said, in case it requires more funds in other areas.

"Then they will have to vote for a pure tax bill to fund it and most of the Republican members do not want to do that," Craddick said.

Rep. Jim Pitts — a Waxahachie Republican who voted for the Democratic school plan despite being on the leadership team as chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee — said Craddick's right about the timing.

"I think that we're blindly going down the road," he said, and that uncertainty compounds the difficulty of the votes.

"Probably the hard issue is taxes. ... If you lower property taxes, you're going to raise taxes somewhere," Pitts said. "Why are we voting on this when we don't know what the courts are going to do?"

Pitts said he doesn't believe he broke with the GOP.

"I think the Republican Party would want you to vote with your district," he said. "The taxpayers in my district would like for us to get the money into the schools."

Pitts has already drawn a GOP opponent for 2006: Q.D. "Duke" Burge, who is on the Midlothian School District board. Pitts said Burge was recruited by school superintendents in his legislative district — but he said that didn't affect his vote.

School finance will evidently loom large in the race, since Burge's Web site describes him as "pro education, fiscally conservative, tax payer advocate."

"I think it'll be an issue," Pitts said. "I don't think it will affect, say, the governor and the lieutenant governor. But ... state reps are pretty local, and I think you could see some really tough races for state reps."

Democratic campaign consultant Ed Martin said even Republicans "are concerned and miffed that their party might be viewed as anti-education."

"That's a powerful campaign message when the electorate thinks that education is our top priority and believes that the state should be putting more resources into our schools," Martin said.

The combination of inadequate investment in public education and the proposed tax shift could benefit Democrats running in rural and suburban districts next year, Martin said.

But Martin conceded that Democrats likely will only see gradual gains in their legislative chambers next year because Republicans protected their districts while redrawing boundaries after the 2000 census.

Pitts said his district is "pretty Republican," so the GOP primary victor is likely to be the next state representative.

And in a Republican primary, said GOP consultant Royal Masset, inaction on the issue isn't a killer, given the options.

"Because we are a party that believes in limited government, we don't cry when nothing happens," Masset said. "Doing nothing, at least you don't spend money."

That means, he said, "You don't have the political whip to get something done. That's why you almost have to wait for the courts."

Longtime San Antonio legislator Frank Madla, a Democrat, doesn't blame Republicans, saying tax and school issues are inherently difficult.

"I've been here for 32 years. I don't see any difference today and back when we were debating the Edgewood (school equity case in the 1980s)," he said. "The only difference is the Democrats were in control then, and the Republicans are in control today."

Madla joins those who contend that Texas must spend more for education, citing the needs of his sprawling district that stretches from south San Antonio to the eastern fringes of El Paso.

Even guidance from the Supreme Court won't make it easy, he said. "It's tough to pass a tax bill any time. I don't know how we are going to get around that issue," Madla said. "My dad said there's no such thing as a good tax — period."


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