Sept. 10, 2005, 10:21PM
An income tax, other proposals draw responses along party lines
By CLAY ROBISON
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - Although a growing number of Texans believe their local property taxes are too high, most support the controversial law, dubbed "Robin Hood," that requires property wealthy school districts to share tax revenue with poorer schools.
But there are sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats over the share-the-wealth law, the Scripps Howard Texas Poll shows, underscoring one reason for the Legislature's prolonged inability to overhaul the school finance system and cut local school taxes.
During their 2002 election campaigns, Gov. Rick Perry and many Republican legislators vowed to repeal Robin Hood and lower property taxes, which now account for about 60 percent of public school funding.
But lawmakers have failed to accomplish either goal during four sessions over the past two years.
According to the Texas Poll, 65 percent of Texans believe their property taxes are too high, compared with 60 percent in May and 54 percent in February.
'Makes a lot of sense'
But despite the Republican attacks against Robin Hood, 57 percent of the survey's respondents agree that rich districts should share their money with poorer schools. Some 38 percent disagree, and 5 percent don't know, reflecting similar polls earlier this year.
"The vast majority of people, as they study it, say it makes a lot of sense to take the state's wealth, where it is in abundance, and move it to where the children are in abundance," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Texas Equity Center, which represents several hundred low- and middle-wealth school districts.
"The vast majority of districts benefit from Robin Hood," he added.
Only 156 of the state's 1,037 school districts must share their local tax money under the law. Many rural districts represented by Republican lawmakers as well as heavily minority, urban and South Texas districts represented by Democrats receive funding from Robin Hood.
But many of the districts that give money are in suburban, heavily Republican areas, which may help explain why most of the opposition to Robin Hood comes from Republicans.
Only 44 percent of Republicans favor the law, while 49 percent oppose it, and 7 percent don't know, according to the survey. Democrats, however, approve of Robin Hood by a 72 percent to 23 percent margin, with 5 percent undecided. Independents support the law, 59 percent to 36 percent, also with 5 percent unsure.
Dick Lavine, a tax policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income people, said the Robin Hood law has benefited the entire state because it has promoted equity in school funding.
Perry backs equity
Spokesman Eric Bearse said Perry, despite his opposition to Robin Hood, also supports equity and, despite the Legislature's failure to act, has proposed plans to increase equity by increasing state funding for public schools.
The law, enacted in 1993 in response to a Texas Supreme Court order for more equity in funding between rich and poor districts, was declared unconstitutional by a state district judge last fall.
The judge also declared the funding system inadequate, and the Supreme Court is now reviewing his decision.
There also has been major disagreement among legislators, even among Republican leaders, over what state taxes should be raised to pay for local property tax reductions.
Even on income tax
Although leaders have vowed to find a tax trade-off that is "revenue neutral," 61 percent of the Texas Poll respondents believe their overall taxes will increase if the Legislature ever enacts a new school finance plan.
Some 25 percent of respondents blamed the school finance impasse on lawmakers, 24 percent blamed it on lobbyists and special interest groups and 14 percent blamed the governor.
Only 3 percent specifically blamed House Speaker Tom Craddick and 1 percent blamed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. But 17 percent said "all of the above."
Texans, the poll indicates, are about evenly divided on whether the Legislature should enact a state income tax to reduce property taxes and increase education funding. Some 45 percent support an income tax, 47 percent don't and 8 percent are unsure.
But there were significant partisan differences over an income tax. Only 35 percent of Republicans like the idea, and 57 percent oppose it. Democrats support it by 60 percent to 31 percent, and independents are evenly divided at 48 percent.
The telephone poll of 1,000 Texans was conducted Aug. 22-Sept. 3 by the Scripps Research Center. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.