Month: <span>September 2014</span>

Patrick outlines plan to gut schools, local governments


I doubt that Dan Patrick has ever had a bad idea that he didn’t try to make worse. First, he was trying to fool voters into thinking that he would lower school property taxes in a “swap” for higher sales taxes, an idea that would have been bad enough for public education. But during last night’s debate of lieutenant governor candidates, he dropped even the pretense of a tax trade.

Now, he has made it clear that he wants to lower school and other local property taxes and abolish or significantly reduce the state’s main business tax (the margins tax) while raising the sales tax only a “penny or two.” In other words, Patrick wants to complete the job of gutting school funding AND cripple budgets for cities, counties and hospital districts, which also rely on the property tax as a major source of revenue. That is what Leticia Van de Putte, Patrick’s opponent, pointed out during the debate, and she was absolutely correct.

A modest increase in the sales tax, which Patrick suggested, wouldn’t come close to closing the huge revenue shortfall that would be left by lowering property taxes and cutting revenue from the margins tax. But it would force Texans to pay more every time they went out to eat or needed to buy new clothes, new furniture, another computer or thousands of other items.

Meanwhile, many teachers would lose their jobs, as would police officers, firefighters and other critical employees we have come to take for granted. Taking Patrick at his word, many neighborhood schools would be forced to close, and thousands of children would be forced into overcrowded classes on unfamiliar campuses farther from home – and with less police and fire protection.

Patrick is an opportunist who would – and does – promise right-wing, anti-government ideologues anything he thinks will help him advance up the public payroll ladder. Wipe out public schools? Sure, no problem, Patrick says, just so we save enough tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers.

Even before entering the lieutenant governor’s race, Patrick was well on the way to torching public education. He voted for the $5.4 billion in school budget cuts in 2011 and voted against the entire state budget, including ALL funding for education, in 2013 – and later lied about “leading” an effort for education funding. That whopper was so bad the Austin American-Statesman, in its PolitiFact column, gave Patrick a “Pants on Fire!” rating.

The only thing Patrick wants to lead is the continuing effort to throw Texas over the cliff, aided and abetted not only by Tea Partiers, but also by people who should know better, including some of the state’s insider business organizations.

Most business people understand the importance of a strong public education system to the state’s economy and business prosperity. But some Austin-based groups, notably the Texas Association of Business (TAB), continue to moan and groan about low test scores while supporting Patrick and questioning the need for additional school revenue, even though thousands of grade school classes exceed the state limit on capacity.

TAB and other Austin insider groups have been supporting education budget-cutters for years because, truth be told, they are more interested in currying favors – low taxes, lax government regulations and protections from consumer lawsuits — than they are in promoting quality classrooms. In that regard, they have found a champion in Dan Patrick. But too bad for the rest of us.


“Swapping” money from education


We have known for a long time that Dan Patrick, if elected lieutenant governor, will continue his attack on public education, and now we know a little more about the hocus-pocus by which he intends to do that.

Patrick emerged from hiding behind the tea counter long enough to announce, at a Texas Tribune-sponsored event in Austin last weekend, that the Legislature should consider a so-called “tax swap” – reducing local school property taxes in exchange for a higher sales tax. There are at least two big problems with that idea.

One, a swap implies an even exchange. So even under the most favorable interpretation, Patrick isn’t proposing any additional money for our under-funded public schools, even though enrollment continues to increase by about 80,000 kids per year. So, that would mean less money to spend on each child’s education.

And, worse, the last time the Legislature enacted a so-called “tax swap” — in 2006 — it dug a $10 billion hole in the public education budget that is still there – on top of the $5.4 billion in school budget cuts that Patrick and the legislative majority approved in 2011.

That’s because the 2006 “tax swap” was a sleight of hand. School property taxes were cut by one-third, a short-term savings that soon disappeared as property values continued to increase. The lost property tax revenue allegedly was replaced by an increase in the cigarette tax and a new business tax, the so-called margins tax. But state leaders intentionally designed the replacement taxes to bring in less revenue than was lost from the property tax cuts, so they could claim they had delivered a net tax “cut.” And, to make matters worse, the new margins tax under-performed.

Consequently, the two-year education budget still has a “structural deficit” of $10 billion. That 2006 law and the 2011 cuts are two major reasons that most school districts sued the state over funding. That lawsuit has resulted in a judge declaring the school funding system inadequate and unconstitutional, and Patrick cannot be trusted with leading the Legislature to fix it.

He voted for the $5.4 billion in school cuts in 2011, he voted against the entire state budget – including a partial restoration of the cuts – in 2013 and now he is proposing an alleged “swap” of taxes that, even under the best circumstances, would further cut per-student funding and likely would be even worse.

Funding per student already has dropped by almost $500 since the 2011 cuts.

Patrick’s Democratic opponent and TSTA’s endorsed candidate, Leticia Van de Putte, has the right idea. She wants to use increased revenue being generated by existing taxes (thanks to a strong Texas economy) to begin restoring the damage to education that Patrick and his fellow ideologues have inflicted.

Patrick is part of the problem. Van de Putte represents a solution.

When excuses about school funding fail, some people lie


If you really want to do something, even if it is difficult, you try to do it. If you don’t want to do something, even if it is important, you try to avoid it with one excuse or another and hope it goes away. If you are publicly put on the spot about your procrastination, then you may squirm, mislead or even lie.

Clearly, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, doesn’t want to do anything to improve education funding for Texas’ 5 million public school students. So, the first sentence above doesn’t apply to him. He has chosen the second route.

When state District Judge John Dietz issued a strongly worded opinion declaring that the state’s school finance system was inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional, Abbott immediately made plans to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

With a little luck, Abbott figures, the Supreme Court eventually will overturn Dietz’s ruling, to the delight of the legislative majority and of Abbott himself, whose campaign promises to improve public education contrast sharply with the fact that he continues to defend $5.4 billion in school budget cuts. Or, an appeal, at the very least, would give Abbott some relief before Election Day from pesky questions about how he, as governor, would address a school finance issue he has no intention of trying to address.

When Democratic nominee Wendy Davis asked Abbott during last week’s gubernatorial debate whether he would try to settle the school lawsuit, Abbott replied that a law enacted by the Legislature in 2011 prohibited the attorney general from seeking a settlement.

In truth, that law simply provides that the Legislature would have to approve a settlement negotiated by the attorney general. The law does nothing to prohibit Abbott from seeking a settlement. Nor, does it require him to continue wasting tax dollars on an appeal while Texas school children continue to be shortchanged of the resources they need to succeed.

Abbott either deliberately lied during the televised debate, or he isn’t competent enough to know the state law governing his office.

Davis, as governor, will advocate for an adequate and fair funding system for all students and take advantage of increased tax collections in a strong economy to pay for it.

Last week, the comptroller’s revenue estimator told the House Ways and Means Committee that sales tax revenue increased by 5.5 percent last year and is expected to experience similar, strong growth this year. That means billions of additional tax dollars for state needs. Additionally, the Rainy Day Fund is at $8.4 billion and is expected to reach double digits within a few more months.

Financially, there is no excuse for the state not to begin working on a strong school funding plan now. Abbott lacks the political will to either lead on the issue or get out of the way.


Trying to get away with murder on school funding


The single biggest issue in this November’s election that will have an impact on Texas’ future is funding for public education, and many Republican candidates, including those running for the state’s top offices, are trying to get away with murder on this subject.

Intentionally or not, Texas Monthly blogger Erica Grieder now is aiding and abetting some of the biggest offenders, and I am sure she isn’t the only one.

By way of background, if you need it, the Republican legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public school budgets in 2011, following Comptroller Susan Combs’ revenue forecast, which under-estimated available tax revenue by several billion dollars and created a fiscal “crisis” that really wasn’t there.

Because of the bad revenue estimate, the education cuts were “technically unavoidable,” Grieder writes in a posting this week on Burkablog. In truth and even accounting for Combs’ poor or politically motivated math, the Legislature had several billion dollars available in the Rainy Day Fund in 2011, and the legislative majority could have spent some of that money to at least minimize the school cuts. What was lacking was the political will to do the right thing, fed by a short-sighted political ideology that still dominates the state GOP.

Grieder gives Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for comptroller, credit for calling out his Republican opponent, Glenn Hegar, not only for voting for the budget cuts in 2011 but also for bragging about his vote now. Can you imagine what kind of fiscal “crisis” Hegar could conjure up as comptroller in order to cripple public schools to the delight of his Tea Party supporters?

But Grieder questions why Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor who filibustered against the school budget cuts, is challenging Republican nominee Greg Abbott on the school funding issue. After all, she writes, Abbott isn’t a legislator and “didn’t have a thing to do” with the cuts.

She forgets, however, that as attorney general Abbott has defended the cuts in court. He also will appeal a state district judge’s ruling that the entire school finance system, including the cuts, is inadequate and unconstitutional. Abbott’s actions as attorney general are a strong indicator that public schools will not be a top priority should he be elected governor, and Davis should continue challenging him on that point.

Grieder also questions how Davis would provide more funding for education, despite the fact that even Combs’ office is now acknowledging that state tax revenue is increasing significantly because of a strong economy.

And, finally, Grieder partially buys into Republican lieutenant governor nominee Dan Patrick’s claim that he “led the charge” to restore most of the education funding in 2013, despite the fact his claim has been branded a “Pants on Fire” lie by the Austin American-Statesman’s PolitiFact Texas. That’s because Patrick voted against the entire state budget, including all education funding, in 2013. The charge to restore most of the funding was led by Davis and Patrick’s Democratic opponent, Leticia Van de Putte, who also had voted against the cuts two years earlier, while Patrick was voting for them.

The blogger says “Pants on Fire” may be a little harsh because former Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams has defended Patrick’s work on the budget. She misses the point, though, that Williams, who last year sharply criticized Patrick for voting against the budget, is defending Patrick now because Williams is now a government affairs specialist for the Texas A&M University System and is trying to mend fences with someone who may be – ugh – the next lieutenant governor.

In fundraising emails to supporters, Patrick has all but promised additional cuts in education funding if he is elected to the higher office.

Nevertheless, Grieder claims, “Patrick’s concern for public education is sincere.”

Yeah. About as sincere as Rick Perry’s smile the last time the governor shook hands with President Obama.