Month: April 2020

As one restaurant owner suggests: What if you are wrong, governor?

Weighing the health and safety of 29 million Texans during this deadly pandemic with the economic needs of millions (many in the service industry) who have lost their jobs obviously is not easy for the governor. Throw in the political desire to appease the scorched earth supporters of President Trump, whose overriding concern during this national emergency is his own reelection, and the task becomes almost impossible.

It also is a lot easier to second-guess the governor’s decisions than to make them, but reopening restaurants to on-premises dining and movie theaters to viewers, even at reduced capacity, is scary. About the time the governor was making his announcement on Thursday, the coronavirus count in Texas was 25,297 cases, 663 deaths and rising.

One of the best summations I have seen so far is from a restaurant owner in Dallas, who is not sure when he will reopen but is sure he won’t be reopening on Friday.

“Who doesn’t find this to be hasty,” the restaurateur told The Dallas Morning News. “We can take all the precautions in the world, but you can’t eat with a mask on. You can’t drink wine with a mask on.”

He added: “And if we’re going to be putting people into small spaces with enclosed dining rooms and air conditioning systems – it’s been shown that that’s where (the coronavirus) spreads — statistically it’s a certainty that at some point somebody is going to walk through those doors, and they’re going to have it (the coronavirus), and one of my staff is going to get sick, and then what do we do?”

Or another diner – or handful of diners – gets sick, and on and on.

Then what do we do, governor? Good question.

From my perspective, Gov. Abbott has been wrong on numerous public policies. This time, though, I really hope he is right. But I am not betting my health on it. I am not eating out.

Clay Robison

Reopening states too early will bring deadlier outcomes, coronavirus projection models show

The pension sharks are back, and educators better watch out

The pension sharks are back, and once again – if you are an educator or public employee – they are circling your retirement income, drawn to your nest egg like four-legged predators are to blood. They love the smell of your money, they want some of it and the coronavirus pandemic has stirred them up.

Replacing the defined benefit pensions enjoyed by teachers and other public workers with much-riskier defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, has long been a goal of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other groups and individuals who believe the primary purpose of government is not public service, but profit for themselves and their privatization allies.

The teacher retirement pension fund alone is just too huge a prize to ignore, and the sharks already were zeroing in on the Teacher Retirement System, which administers the fund, before the pandemic struck. TRS will be up for the Legislature’s sunset review next year, making the future of the pension fund a handy target. Add to that the huge public relations fiasco that TRS recently created with the expensive and not-entirely-transparent lease of office space in an upscale Austin tower, and blood started flowing.

TRS is trying to abort the tower lease, but just as publicity was beginning to wane came the arrival of the coronavirus emergency, followed by a plummeting economy and a reeling stock market, which has whacked several billion dollars off the TRS pension fund’s value. The fund still had a value of about $150 billion last Friday (April 17). So, it is not likely to dry up anytime soon.

But one of the guys at the Texas Public Policy Foundation tweeted the same day that TRS was “likely in the ditch” – not true, but a signal that the people who want to take away your defined benefit pensions will use the volatile stock market as an opportunity. Do you want to trade your defined share of a $150 billion pension fund with a long performance history for a 401(k) with no guarantee of any kind of return? The only guarantee a 401(k) offers is how much money you put in it, not how much, if any, you take out of it.

A recession is a particularly awful time to be talking about 401(k)s. Do you have one? Have you checked your balance lately? Yeah, it may be, as the guy said, “in the ditch.” How many school teachers, bus drivers or cafeteria workers want a 401(k) as their sole source of retirement income?

But the pension sharks have a different interest in 401(k)s. They consider the potential management fees they and their allies, instead of TRS, could be raking in from billions of dollars’ worth of 401(k)s. So they will continue to circle.

Clay Robison

The coronavirus’ looming hit on school finances was unexpected; Abbott’s and Patrick’s hit was premeditated

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made comfortable governmental careers for themselves by attacking government, appealing to people who wish government would go away.

Guess what? Government was the first thing many of Abbott’s and Patrick’s admirers, among other people, thought of when they suddenly found themselves without jobs after the coronavirus disaster struck Texas. They started flooding state government’s unemployment website and phone lines.

Eventually, Texas will begin to rebuild after the pandemic subsides, but it won’t be easy, and the coronavirus may return next year. The economy has been hammered, and it will be difficult for many people as well as governments to recover. These include local governments – the cities and counties that are providing emergency services as well as the normal daily services that people take for granted, the hospital districts that are providing care to COVID-19 victims and the school districts that are continuing to teach children under difficult, challenging conditions.

The coronavirus will cost local governments untold millions in lost sales tax revenue because of the business closures and reduced economic activity during the emergency, but this is only the second economic disaster to recently strike local governments in Texas, including school districts.

The first disaster was planned and carried out by Abbott, Patrick and their anti-government allies in the Legislature about this time last year, long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. Last spring, Abbott and Patrick, et al, were ramming through the Legislature a law that will sharply restrict the other major source of revenue for local governments – property taxes.

The new law will limit the ability of cities and counties to increase revenue from property taxes, excluding taxes on new construction, by more than 3.5 percent a year, without local voter approval. Local officials warned the governor and legislators, even before anyone anticipated a pandemic, that the limit would severely restrict their ability to provide normal public services, but the anti-government governor and lieutenant governor wouldn’t listen.

The same law will limit the ability of school districts to increase property tax revenue by more than 2.5 percent a year, and school districts will not be allowed to ask voters for an exception, even though property taxes are their only local revenue option.

It is true that the Legislature increased state funding for schools by several billion dollars last year, but that soon will be gone. Next year’s legislative session instead will probably be cutting state spending to deal with its own revenue shortfall stemming from the pandemic. In addition to the loss of huge amounts of sales tax revenue – state government’s main tax source – oil and gas tax revenues also have fallen. Driving and gasoline consumption have been sharply reduced during the health emergency, and world oil supplies also are keeping prices low.

All this means educators and students may be left holding a very depleted bag of resources. The pandemic was unforeseen, but Abbott’s and Patrick’s folly was premeditated.

Clay Robison

The emergency use of online learning encourages the peddlers of privatization

Crises and emergencies bring out the heroic best in people, but, unfortunately, they also bring out the opportunists. Hurricanes and tornadoes often are followed by the price-gougers, overcharging victims for bottles of water, gasoline and other necessities. Now we have the COVID-19 pandemic, and the peddlers of education privatization are circling.

First, we had Education Secretary Betsy DeVos renaming and proposing vouchers in the form of “microgrants.” Now, we have a proposal from the Koch-funded Mercatus Center for lawmakers to allow school districts, in response to the pandemic, to “repurpose taxpayer resources meant for bus routes, food service, and facility maintenance, to name a few, and use this spending to purchase education services from online providers.”

In other words, since thousands of school districts around the country are immersed in virtual learning while buildings are closed during the current emergency, why not keep it up? Or, so this proposal recommends. Stop spending tax dollars on buses and bus drivers, cafeterias and cafeteria workers and maintenance employees and spend it to beef up virtual learning instead. Mercatus also gives a plug to K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two private virtual providers eager to dig more deeply into state tax dollars.

In its proposal, Mercatus cites regulatory and technical obstacles to virtual schooling. But as the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) points out in it’s analysis, it ignores the limitations of virtual schooling, which many Texas educators and parents are discovering now. NEPS also discusses reasons why policymakers for the long term should never try to replace the teacher in the classroom and the support staff on campus with computers. Reasons such as:

  • The broader purposes of schools, including socialization and nutrition. Those free and reduced-price school lunches are the only meals many school kids get each day.
  • Quality. NEPC cites research on the “consistently and troublingly low” learning outcomes of online schools.
  • Equity. Online schools amplify inequities that worsen the disadvantages of some students, including the many low-income kids who don’t have home computers and Internet access at home.Students with special needs. Virtual schooling is frequently inaccessible to students with special needs and can be an obstacle to their needed access to therapeutic services and their federal right to learn in the least restrictive environment.
  • Fraud, waste and abuse. Education tax dollars are too precious to waste on opportunistic entrepreneurs who often promise more than they deliver.

A computer can be a valuable supplemental education tool, and online learning is a reasonable education alternative during the current emergency, when school buildings are closed to protect public health. But over the long term, computers can’t effectively replace teachers or provide students the important socialization and support services that school campuses do.

Clay Robison