If teachers are going to get a pay raise and education retirees are going to get any meaningful relief from health care costs, Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick and the Senate majority are going to have to quit hoarding $10 billion of public funds – money that belongs to teachers, retirees, parents and other taxpayers.
This is the crux of the education funding issue before the special legislative session. Abbott, Patrick and their Senate allies refuse to spend the state’s $10 billion Rainy Day savings account for what it was intended – to meet an emergency public need. Education funding, including teacher pay and a retiree health care system that is in danger of crumbling and bankrupting retirees, is clearly an emergency.
Speaker Joe Straus and many House members, as they were during the regular legislative session, are ready to use a small portion of that fund – no more than 10 to 20 percent – to boost teacher pay, ease retiree health care costs and perhaps begin improving the school finance system.
Abbott and Patrick claim to support a teacher pay raise but refuse to spend any state funds, including the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for it. The Senate has approved a Patrick bill that supposedly would provide temporary health care relief to retirees and award bonuses (maybe) to some teachers. But instead of providing more funding, the bill would allegedly cover its costs by delaying payments to a woefully under-funded health care system for low-income Texans. At the Capitol, this is called an “accounting trick.” You also could call it a form of financial hocus-pocus.
Sen. Jane Nelson, the sponsor of the Patrick Senate bill, said using the Rainy Day Fund was not a permanent solution to education funding. She refused to admit that the Rainy Day Fund is a sound, legitimate source of emergency funding, certainly better than hers and Patrick’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach. Lawmakers need to use a small part of the Rainy Day Fund now and come back in the next regular session to enact a more-permanent plan for adequate, equitable school funding.
Abbott and Patrick persist in trying to mislead the public by claiming that the Rainy Day Fund is supposed to be reserved for the most catastrophic of physical disasters, such as hurricanes. Rep. John Zerwas, the Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, has called that interpretation “totally false.”
In truth, the fund, created in the 1980s in the wake of a serious budgetary emergency, was intended to help the state through future budgetary emergencies, such as what we are experiencing now. Previous Legislatures have periodically withdrawn from the fund for an assortment of emergency needs, and the fund repeatedly has been replenished with oil and natural gas production taxes and some general tax revenue.
The state comptroller has predicted the fund will grow to more than $11 billion by the end of fiscal 2019 if left untouched. Citing financial experts, Zerwas said the state can afford a partial withdrawal of several billion dollars without endangering the state’s credit rating.
By locking up the fund, Abbott and Patrick are representing the selfish interests of wealthy ideologues who want to shrink state government, including public schools, and privatize much of private education. If they succeed, today’s emergency could very well become a catastrophe tomorrow.