Rainy Day Fund

Schools get $1.5 billion; hoarders get $18 billion


The $1.5 billion that the Legislature appropriated for public education (on top of enrollment growth) in the new, two-year state budget certainly is better than a $5.4 billion cut, which is what happened four years ago. But it is nothing for lawmakers to brag about, particularly when you stack it up against $18 billion.

(Some lawmakers, however, are bragging.)

But, getting back to the $18 billion (billion with a very big B), that is the amount of taxpayers’ money that the Legislature left unspent, sitting in the bank, doing no one any good. That figure includes an estimated $11.1 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, which my friend and Texas Monthly writer R.G. Ratcliffe suggests should now be renamed the “Texas Hoarding Fund.”

And, the $18 billion includes what is left after the legislative majority spent $3.8 billion on a property tax cut that will be a joke for the average homeowner and a franchise tax cut that will be significant for many businesses.

In case you haven’t seen R.G.’s blog, which ran during the closing days of the session, it is linked below. In it, he calculated that a stack of one billion one-dollar bills would be about 68 miles tall, and a stack of 18 billion one-dollar bills would be about 1,224 miles tall, or the distance across the state from Texarkana to El Paso and halfway back. I will take his word for the math.

More significantly, though, R.G. calculated that the $18 billion the state is hoarding “would pay for an entire year of police and fire protection, garbage collection and wastewater service, parks and libraries and all other incidental operations for the cities of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio – combined.”

Imagine what that $18 billion (or even just half of it) could have done if the Legislature had appropriated it for education, health care and other under-funded programs in the state budget.




While teachers moonlight, Rainy Day Fund keeps growing


For the legislative majority to feign poverty as a reason for short-changing public education is short-sighted. It also is disingenuous, and if that word is too long, it is dishonest.

With the economy improving, the Legislature this year restored most of the funding that was slashed from the public education budget two years ago, and that was a step appreciated by thousands of teachers and other education workers. But school funding is still behind where it was during the 2010-11 school year, and school enrollments have increased by 80,000 to 85,000 students each year since then.

And, the Legislature could – and should – have provided more education funding last spring by dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Many legislators – those who actually want to give the public schools more than lip service – tried. But they were outgunned by a majority fueled by stingy, short-sighted ideological politics, which would rather bleed school districts – and the professionals who work in them — in favor of charters, home-schooling or maybe even one-room schoolhouses. The latter, 18th century alternative to education certainly would match the 18th century mindset that apparently thinks we already spend too much money on public schools.

In truth, Texas never has spent too much money on public schools and, at present, isn’t spending enough and isn’t spending what it does spend in a fair and equitable fashion. That’s why Texas is under a court order – again – to fix the school finance system. That’s why Texas ranks near the bottom of the states in per-pupil funding and teacher pay. And, that’s why 44 percent of Texas teachers, an all-time high, according to a new TSTA-commissioned survey, find it necessary to take extra jobs during the school year to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, the Rainy Day Fund sits in the bank, growing and growing with tax revenue from the oil and gas boom. According to new projections by the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, a business group, the fund could reach its maximum percentage of the state budget – or $16.1 billion – by 2017. Even if constitutional amendments that would tap into the fund for water and highway spending pass during the next two years, the fund would still have $11.6 billion by 2017, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Those water and highway amendments were approved by the Legislature despite right wing opposition. But efforts to tap into the Rainy Day Fund for schools fell short, even though an educated workforce also is critical to the state’s future. The money in the Rainy Day Fund belongs to the taxpayers, folks. The fund wasn’t created to simply grow and give right-wingers bragging rights for some misguided notions of “stewardship” or to save for some unknown, future emergency when we already have pressing needs now.



Texas: A state of emergencies


Texas has a long legacy of emergencies, real emergencies, many created by a state government that seemingly doesn’t know how to operate in any other mode. That’s why we have had a steady stream of school finance lawsuits, that’s why some communities are scrambling to find future sources of water and that’s why our part-time Legislature was still meeting in August.

Lawmakers adjourned their third and — I guess — final special session of the summer last night after completing work on an “emergency” transportation funding proposal that, if voters approve, could take as much as $1.2 billion a year from the state’s savings account, the Rainy Day Fund.

The proposal has no immediate, direct impact on public school funding, but a prolonged dedication of Rainy Day money to highways could have a long-term detrimental effect on funding for schools and other critical state needs during future budget emergencies. That is an issue that voters will have to weigh before deciding how to vote on the “emergency” highway funding plan.

I keep saying, “Emergency.” Well, Texas does have an emergency, urgent need to unclog roads and highways that are becoming more overcrowded almost every day. But the funding plan approved by the Legislature won’t even come close to covering the $4 billion-plus in additional funds that the Texas Department of Transportation says it needs every year to simply keep traffic congestion from growing. And, the funding proposal wasn’t exactly put on an emergency, fast track to voters. It will remain in limbo for another 15 months until voters finally get their say in the November 2014 election.

Although it may take voters in some urban areas almost that long to drive to their polling places, the real reason for the delay is that lawmakers are asking us to weigh in on another emergency first – a $2 billion investment in a water development fund that will be on the ballot this November. Legislators were reluctant to put both emergencies on the ballot at the same time for fear that voters would rise up against one or both of them. One emergency at a time, please.

The basic problem with highway funding, public school funding and other financial emergencies that will become more frequent is an outdated, inadequate state tax structure – full of special interest loopholes – that the state leadership refuses to address.

Part of the problem is a growing crop of legislative Tea Partiers, who would rather dunk their heads in the nearest kettle than deal with reality. A larger obstructionist is Gov. Rick Perry, who for too many years has preached tax “relief” while largely neglecting public education and waving at our state’s growing transportation needs with toll roads and credit cards.

One of these days, Texas is going to face one emergency too many, and that day may be approaching more rapidly than anyone would like to think.



School funding still comes up short


No doubt about it, $3.9 billion is a lot of money. But anyone who may think that it is going to take the state off the hook in the school finance lawsuit is engaging in wishful thinking. Either that, or they are betting the Texas Supreme Court eventually will undercut public schools with an ideological decision perpetrating the myth that money doesn’t make a difference in educational quality.

TSTA and other public school advocates are pleased that the Legislature restored $3.9 billion of the $5.4 billion cut from public education in 2011. And, we are grateful to the parents and school employees who contacted their legislators and helped ensure the partial recovery. But the appropriation is still $1.5 billion less than schools were receiving two years ago, while enrollment has grown by about 170,000 statewide since that time – and is still growing. And, the Legislature left $8 billion of taxpayer money unspent in the Rainy Day Fund.

Assuming Gov. Rick Perry doesn’t figure out a way to veto any of the $3.9 billion – and that may be a rash assumption – the next decision-maker to be heard from in the school funding drama will be state District Judge John Dietz of Austin, the presiding judge in the school finance lawsuit brought against the state by more than 600 districts.

Dietz ruled in February that the state wasn’t spending enough money for schools to do their jobs successfully and wasn’t appropriating money among districts in a fair and equitable way. But he delayed issuing a formal, written decision until after the Legislature had another chance to address funding and other educational issues.

During the regular session, which ended on Memorial Day, lawmakers also reduced the end-of-course (EOC) exams for high school students under the STAAR regime from 15 to five, partly in response to school district complaints in the lawsuit but also to parental outrage over too much testing.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick predicted the extra money and testing reductions could affect Dietz’s final ruling. “I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue,” Patrick was quoted in The Dallas Morning News over the weekend.

But I doubt that the judge will be overly impressed by the Legislature’s work product. Remember, he estimated in February that it may take an extra $2,000 per child – or another $10 billion or $11 billion a year in state funding – to meet all state standards. And, the Legislature didn’t come close to meeting that figure. Moreover, more than 60 percent of public school students are low-income, with many requiring more funding for remedial programs.

As Dietz remarked back then,” There is no free lunch.”

Once Dietz issues his final ruling, the state will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, many of whose members view the world – and state government’s responsibility – quite differently from the trial judge.

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted an item about SB346, which had been approved by both the House and the Senate, to require certain nonprofit groups that actively engage in political advocacy to publicly report their donors to the Texas Ethics Commission. It would have helped teachers, parents and others who value public schools to learn more about who is paying for political efforts to undermine public education.

I say “would have helped” because, in case you haven’t heard by now, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. He said it would have had a “chilling effect” on the democratic political process.

In truth, it would have enhanced the democratic process. It would have forced the public disclosure of wealthy ideologues who finance bullying tactics against legislators, often to the detriment of most mainstream Texans. The veto wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was wrong, nevertheless.