Monday, March 20, 2006

Lobbyists step up for the special school finance session in April

So the special session on school finance convenes shortly on April 17, 2006. Here is Carlos Guerra's analysis. One want to be hopeful but....

Another related piece also appearing in the Houston Chronicle on March 17 titled"Special session to repair school finance set for April 17" adds important detail.


Lobbyists step up for the special school finance session in April

Web Posted: 03/19/2006 12:00 AM CST

by Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News

The special session of the Legislature to fix Texas' school-funding system — declared unconstitutional in November — will convene April 17, Gov. Rick Perry said last week. And on this, the fourth try, if lawmakers don't fix it by June 1, it could be disastrous for Perry — who is headed into a four-way plurality election in November — and worse for kids.

There are passionate constituencies on all sides of this issue. Yes, our workforce's educational level will determine Texas' economic future. But it is also easy to see why property owners grumble about ever-rising property taxes.

Many public schools are excellent, and untold thousands of great teachers are producing outstanding students. But there is also no shortage of tales about bad schools, squandered public money and school boards that are well-oiled patronage machines.

At the same time, it is also hard to disagree with conscientious parents and educators who point out that woefully inadequate funding keeps Texas schools from providing today's kids with the educational programs needed to excel.

The current drive to overhaul the state-local funding mechanism that raises the $33 billion for schools started in the regular 2003 legislative session, where the effort finally died amid much acrimony. Perry called a special session to deal with the issue in 2004, but it was angrier and less productive.

Perry then advised lawmakers to seek consensus on a fix before the 2005 regular session, but that session came and went, and the only accord lawmakers reached was that they might find accord more easily if the state Supreme Court held a gun to their heads.

They got their wish in November when the justices found Texas' school funding system unconstitutional. But the ruling was very limited. Because so many school districts are taxing at the $1.50 maximum rate, the court ruled, an unconstitutional state property tax has been created, and school districts no longer have "meaningful discretion" in raising tax rates or spending on community priorities.

And if those things aren't fixed by June 1, the justices warned, state money will stop flowing to local districts.

Perry recruited former comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat, to head the Texas Tax Reform Commission — a panel dominated by business types — and ordered it to put together "a revenue-neutral" package of tax-swaps to lower property tax rates and replace the lost revenue with other tax money.

The panel's report has not been released, but panel members say they will recommend lowering property taxes to $1 and replacing the money lost with new taxes on service providers, a gross-revenue tax on most corporations and raising the cigarette tax by $1 per pack.

And already, two new, heavily funded lobbying groups have formed to join the older trade groups that killed previous efforts to raise taxes on businesses. One new group consists of Texas' largest law firms and the other's membership is a who's who of the state's largest manufacturers.

As for the many parents, educators, administrators, school board members and progressive Texans who want Texas to go beyond smoke-and-mirrors tax-swaps and bogus high-stakes tests, and actually provide the money needed to make our public schools — and our students — competitive with other states, they too are coming together. But the Coalition to Invest in Public Schools' Web site is still under construction, as it has been for a while.

I wonder who will win this one?

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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