Rainy Day Fund

Wrong-headed politics blocking full education funding


The reason that many legislators don’t want to spend any money from the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund on public schools is because they want to hoard your tax dollars. This would enable them to go back home and brag to a small – but loud – number of constituents that they had “saved” the fund.

These constituents refuse to believe that a growing state like Texas requires a wise investment of tax dollars in critical programs, services and infrastructure. They also claim our public schools are fat with waste, despite $5.4 billion in budget cuts two years ago, and would love to divert tax dollars to private schools. And, unfortunately, they are influential in many Republican primary races.

But the “official” reason among the legislative leadership for not spending Rainy Day dollars to help restore all the education funding is that the savings account shouldn’t be used on “recurring” expenses. This is a false argument, but so far it and the political hoarder mentality have succeeded in blocking any attempt to dip into the Rainy Day Fund for schools. It also, so far, has blocked efforts to spend Rainy Day money on future water projects because of pushback from education advocates.

With the regular legislative session nearing an end, it is time for the predictable threats of a special session from the governor, and Gov. Perry is right on schedule, threatening to call lawmakers back into a special session this summer if they don’t approve a water funding plan. Unfortunately, he has said nothing about attaching a similar priority to education.

Legislators are on track to restore part of the $5.4 billion cut from schools in 2011, but without dipping into the Rainy Day Fund they could be as much as $2 billion or more short of restoring the entire amount.

Using Rainy Day money to help fill the entire $5.4 billion hole would not be a “recurring” expense. It would be a one-time repair. But failure to fill the entire hole would give school districts a “recurring” budgetary shortfall, created when the Legislature refused to fund enrollment growth for the past two years, or about 170,000 children.

In truth, the constitutional amendment that created the Rainy Day Fund and was approved by Texas voters in 1988 includes no prohibition against spending the savings account on recurring needs. And, the Legislature – under both Republican and Democratic control – has spent Rainy Day savings over the years on a number of recurring expenses, including public education, retired teacher health care, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Child Protective Services.

In 2003, the Republican-dominated Legislature even spent Rainy Day money to create the Texas Enterprise Fund and in 2005 to fund the Emerging Technology Fund. Gov. Perry has used both those funds to dole out millions of tax dollars to private businesses. The funds have been recurring expenses, and, in the minds of many, recurring boondoggles.

Perry claims they have been important economic development tools. But the biggest, most effective economic development tools the state has are its public schools.

The bottom line is there is more than enough money in the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to begin paying for water projects AND restore cuts to public schools AND have money left over for future emergencies.

The math is simple. The politics are not.



What good is a water fund without good schools?


House Bill 11 deserves a watery grave. Yes, that is a bad pun for the water bill that was shot down in the Texas House last night on a procedural point. And, yes, Texas needs to start spending more money developing future water resources, which HB11 would have done. But Texas also needs to start spending more money on its public schools, and HB11 would have failed to do that.

HB11 would have taken $2 billion from the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to establish a revolving account for future water-supply projects. But, ignoring the priorities of most Texas voters, sponsors refused to include any additional funding to complete the restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from public school budgets two years ago.

What good would it be to spend money on water projects if you don’t have enough well-educated architects, engineers and managers to design, build and operate them?

Despite what Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Association of Business and other government privateers think, the answer to a quality educational system doesn’t start with standardized tests for third-graders. It starts with adequately funded schools, and proposed budgets in the House and the Senate still fall short of repairing all the damage from the education cuts inflicted in 2011.

The Senate has approved SJR1, a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if they want to spend $4.9 billion of the Rainy Day Fund for roads and water projects and $800 million for public education. But that amendment doesn’t seem likely to win House approval, and – with the regular session ending in four weeks – there is talk of a summer special session because Gov. Perry wants money for water.

If only he had the slightest bit of enthusiasm for funding schools as well, this problem could be more quickly resolved.

Without using the Rainy Day Fund, the House has approved a budget that would restore $2.5 billion of the lost $5.4 billion and has approved a separate bill that would add another $500 million. Without SJR1, the Senate’s budget would restore only $1.5 billion of the education funds, although Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams has pledged to add another $1.4 billion made possible because of increasing property wealth.

The final version of the new state budget – and how much money it includes for public education – will be negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee while legislators continue to disagree over the Rainy Day Fund.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, a strong advocate for dipping into the Rainy Day Fund for schools as well as for water, raised the point of order that torpedoed HB11 last night. And, according to a bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA earlier this session, most Texas voters agree with him.

Some 66 percent of voters said lawmakers should use the Rainy Day Fund to restore public school funding. That includes 39 percent who chose education funding over water (5 percent) or roads (4 percent) plus 27 percent who believe Rainy Day money should be spent on all three needs.

As the poll shows, most Texas voters have their priorities straight. But they continue to be ignored by many of their alleged “leaders” in Austin.



There is real opportunity in public schools, not vouchers


It still takes two to tango in the Legislature. That is, both the House and the Senate have to approve a new law, and the House recorded a very strong 103-43 vote last week against spending tax dollars on private school vouchers. But Dan Patrick, the pro-school privatization champion who doubles as Senate Education Chairman, is still peddling the bad idea. He may not even have enough votes to get a voucher bill through the Senate, but his rhetoric has escalated into double-overdrive.

Double-overdrive? Yes, in Patrick’s case, there is such a thing.

The Senate Education Committee yesterday heard Patrick’s SB23, which would divert tax dollars from public to private schools through “tax credit scholarships,” another name for vouchers, and Sen. Donna Campbell’s SB1575, which would give a small number of families state aid to help pay tuition at private schools. The committee didn’t take any action on either bill, not yet, anyway.

Patrick characterized voucher opponents, such as TSTA, as “barriers of people who are against opportunity and competition.” Again, he is flat wrong.

For one thing, if religious and other private schools want to compete with public schools, they already can do so. But they have no business dipping into the public till to enrich their bottom line, and the Legislature has no business allowing that to happen.

And, what about opportunity? All privatization schemes to the contrary, the vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated in traditional public schools, and that includes most of the low-income children for whom Patrick purports to offer hope. Public schools, not vouchers, are their opportunity for a successful future.

Instead of giving these children rhetoric, Patrick should start giving them the right kind of votes. Just two years ago, he undermined the most realistic educational opportunity most of these children will ever have when he joined his colleagues in the legislative majority to slash $5.4 billion from public school budgets.

At the very least, he now should put his privatization schemes aside and join the real education experts – teachers and others in the public school community – in demanding that the Legislature restore the full amount of the cuts, not just the partial amounts already approved by the House and the Senate.

If Patrick really wants to improve opportunities for school children, he should start talking about tapping the Rainy Day Fund, not creating vouchers or tax credits. The Rainy Day Fund has enough money to complete the job of making our real opportunity providers – the public schools – whole again.



Don’t feel good about the Senate education budget


Despite all the well-scripted posturing, a few things were missing yesterday from the state Senate’s “Kumbaya” session over SB1, its budget plan. There was no music and dancing to go with the choreographed exchange of political back-patting and backside-covering. And, there wasn’t a decent budget either.

As we were reminded ad nauseam, SB1 is an “improvement” over the budget drafted during 2011, but that isn’t saying much, since the 2011 document ravaged education, health care and other important state services. SB1 would restore some of that funding, but it still would leave thousands of public school students in overcrowded classrooms, thousands of struggling college students without enough financial aid and thousands of low-income Texans without health care.

Calling SB1 an “improvement” is kind of like saying living in a leaky tent is an “improvement” over living on a park bench when you have enough money to buy a house. In the case of SB1, budget writers left $12 billion of taxpayer money sitting untouched in the Rainy Day Fund, more than enough money to fully restore the education and health care funding and meet other state needs with raising any additional taxes.

As approved by the Senate, 29-2, SB1 would restore only about one-fourth of the $5.4 billion – or $1,062 per student – slashed from public schools two years ago. Only Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and new arrival Sylvia Garcia of Houston, both Democrats, dared to break with the Senate’s go-along-to-get along clubbiness and vote against the bill. Davis also made an articulate argument about how the measure “fails Texas children.”

Freshman Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, the Tea Party and Texans for Lawsuit Reform darling, may still be learning her way around the Capitol but she has quickly learned one of the moldiest clichés of the statehouse’s right wing. She dissed the idea of “throwing money” at education. In truth, Texas has never “thrown money” at education, but before the privatization champions took over the Capitol, the Legislature tried to do a decent job of budget-writing.

Defending his budget, Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams of The Woodlands tried to dispute the severity of the education cuts and suggested that tapping into the Rainy Day Fund to restore all the cuts – which he called “ongoing operations” – could harm the state’s credit rating.

The cuts are severe on their face. About 5 million students are enrolled in Texas’ public schools. That means each student’s share, on average, of the $5.4 billion in cuts, spread over two years, is about $1,000. The National Education Association calculated the average per-pupil cut at $1,062, using Texas’ own data.

Texas’ per-pupil spending is more than $3,000 below the national average and ranks Texas 49th among the states and the District of Columbia. That poses a larger threat to the state’s economy and its future credit rating than spending part of the Rainy Day Fund to repair the damage to students’ learning opportunities.

The next step in the budget-setting process is the House. Ultimately, the final budget will be written by a House-Senate conference committee later this spring. More than two-thirds of Texans, according to a recent bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA, support using the Rainy Day Fund to restore education funding, and that support crosses partisan lines. If you are among that majority, you need to let your state senators and state representatives know – and keep reminding them. If you don’t who your lawmakers are, click on the following link and type in your address to find how who they are and how to contact them.