There is a fact of life in Austin that every educator should remember. What the Texas Legislature giveth during one session can be taken away in the next session, and this includes teacher pay raises. Whether that happens depends on what happens in the in-between year – the election year.
The 2020 elections will begin with the March party primaries, but already legislative leaders in Austin are signaling that they are more interested in cutting taxes during the next legislative session in 2021 than they are in building on the 2019 session’s commitment to education funding.
In the biggest pro-education session in years, the Legislature last spring increased state education funding by $6.5 billion for pay raises and other important classroom needs.
But that was just a start, a down payment, toward lifting Texas out of the bottom half of the states in its commitment to public schools. Altogether the Legislature spent $11.6 billion on increased education spending and school property tax relief for the current two-year budget cycle, but the $5 billion or so spent to buy down property taxes didn’t increase overall school funding. It just transferred more of the funding to the state.
Much of the $11.6 billion came from a $9 billion revenue surplus that may not be available the next time the Legislature convenes. Meanwhile, the Legislative Budget Board has projected the cost of this year’s school finance bill will increase to $13.4 billion for the next budget cycle, and it will continue to increase in subsequent years if future Legislatures keep the new-found commitment to public education funding.
So far, though, I have detected no interest in the legislative leadership in finding significant new revenue sources for schools — or to improve educators’ health care and retirement benefits. Instead there are proposals to reduce existing revenue sources even more.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will be back on the Senate podium in 2021 because he is not up for reelection next year, has asked the Senate Finance Committee to consider ways to further tighten the constitutional cap on state spending and reserve more money for “tax relief.” He also has asked the committee to consider more exemptions for some business property taxes.
Patrick has instructed the Senate Property Tax Committee to recommend legislation to “improve, enhance or complete implementation” of Senate Bill 2, the new law that strictly limits the ability of local elected officials to raise property taxes. Does he want to squeeze local budgets, including school district budgets, even more? He certainly doesn’t want to increase them.
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has directed the House Ways and Means Committee to seek more property tax relief, “including potential sources of revenue that may be used to reduce or eliminate school district maintenance and operations property tax rates.”
This would be replacement money, not new revenue.
Meanwhile, some members of the business community will be seeking further reductions in – or a phasing out – of the franchise tax, and many legislators will be receptive.
The leadership already has backed a constitutional amendment, Proposition 4, which Texas voters approved in November, to make it more difficult to enact a state personal income tax. The same proposition abolished a constitutional provision that dedicated revenue from a future income tax to education and school property tax relief.
The Legislature appropriated more funding for public schools this year because educators got out in force to vote in 2018’s elections, made education their priority and elected new education friendly candidates to the Legislature.
Now, many of those education friendly legislators will be facing stiff reelection opposition. So, educators must do even more in next year’s elections – or risk losing their hard-fought legislative gains.