Sunday, September 25, 2005

Craddick airs views on school finance and reform

Craddick airs views on school finance and reform
Bob Campbell
Midland Reporter Telegram

Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series about the Texas Legislature's year-long effort to finance public schools and reform their operations.

By Bob Campbell

Staff Writer

Fresh from three legislative sessions that failed to finance public schools, House Speaker Tom Craddick is as dead set as ever to tie appropriations to reform.

With the state Supreme Court poised to rule on the "Robin Hood" system, Craddick will brook nothing but a complete overhaul -- lower property taxes, more accountability and transparency, course-ending exams, an emphasis away from books to technology and post-Labor Day school starts.

The Midland republican also wants a "65 percent rule" to mandate spending that much of districts' budgets in classrooms and to move school board elections from May to November.

"We're going to change the system one way or another," he told Midland Young Republicans at the Petroleum Club Thursday. "We may be there for two or three years, but we're going to get it done. It'll be a system fix.

"We don't need school board elections in gyms on an odd Saturday in the spring."

He said schools spend far too much on administration, vouchers should offer private school alternatives and districts need revenue caps along with lower taxes to avoid property value inflation. "We're not going to pour more money into this bottomless pit without reform," he said.

"As long as I'm speaker, we're not going to do it."

Craddick said starting school in August costs $840 million a year and the tab to educate Hurricane Katrina evacuees, including opening three mothballed Houston schools, will be as high as $1.5 billion.

"I'm for closing the bad schools," he said. "As you know, a lot of schools are cheating on TAKS. I support making the responsible school officials criminally liable. But the Texas Association of School Administrators says, 'No.'"

Contrary to some perceptions, he said, the Austin Legislature did have significant accomplishments during the regular session last spring, balancing the budget and adding asbestos provisions to 2003 tort reform.

He said criticism for upping total state expenditures from $118 billion to $139 billion for the next biennium was misinformed because $9 billion of that was in federally-funded Medicare and highway spending, leaving an actual increase of only 3 percent.

Craddick said the Supreme Court in Austin will not close the schools and athletic and band programs aren't in jeopardy. "Five of the judges are up for re-election, so if you believe that I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you," he joked.

Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, one of 12 Republicans who often sided with democrats this year, said Friday education wasn't reformed or financed because Texans didn't hear any ideas they liked. "People are saying the Legislature failed," said Jones.

"I think we succeeded because our job is to vote what the public wants and, statewide, the man on the street and general public never found any plan satisfactory as proposed. I didn't find any evidence of Craddick trying to break any arms. He let that thing flow smoothly and fairly.

"The court could shut the schools down, but I don't think that's likely. Even if they sustain the lower court that the system is unconstitutional, they could say to leave the present plan in place until the Legislature has a chance to correct it at the next regular session in 2007."

Jones said lobbyists representing education, oil and gas and other interests were not very noticeable during the regular session last spring but became active during the two special summertime sessions.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, told the Reporter-Telegram the tax battle came down to where the burden should be heaviest -- on corporations like Dell and SBC or the more "capital intensive" businesses like oil production and refining.

Disputing the speaker's contention his TASA-backed amendment would have revved up education spending from $34 billion to a prohibitive $37.5 billion, Hochberg said, "No, we repeatedly revised it to meet whatever budget bill the leadership had.

"We couldn't do otherwise because the leadership passed a rule every time that a bill on the floor couldn't add money to the cost. We would've lowered the property tax less but would have tripled the $1,500 homestead exemption."

Hochberg's June amendment to replace the House leadership's tax bill drew a 74-74 tie with Craddick voting to table it. Hochberg revived it in the second special session, but it was rejected on a procedural point.

He sought a $3,200 annual raise for teachers as opposed to House Bill 2's $1,500 and wanted to cut school property taxes from $1.50 to $1.30 per $100 in valuation. HB 2, while reducing taxes to $1.15, didn't propose a homestead exemption hike.

"The oil and gas lobbyists were not really involved in the education battle," said Hochberg. "Ultimately the tax bill as laid out had nothing to do with the education budget. There were zero dollars from new taxes to fund public schools. The ground rule Mr. Craddick laid out was that any new money for schools was going to come from the existing budget separate and apart from any new taxes.

"All new taxes were going to go to property tax reduction. The oil and gas industry wanted tax relief and I think rightfully so. But no one was ready to give heavy industry a lower tax burden."

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