Fiddling in China while El Paso burns

Emperor Nero supposedly fiddled while Rome burned. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I’ve always heard that story.

These days, there are a lot of fires to put out in Texas, and one is raging in El Paso, where voters yesterday rejected a property tax increase sought by the El Paso ISD. Without the extra tax money, the El Paso district says it now will have to start slashing $18 million from essential education programs, increase class sizes and may have to lay off some teachers, because it, like other districts throughout Texas, are underfunded by Gov. Rick Perry and his Republican buddies in the Legislature.

And, where is Emperor Rick? He’s in China, fiddling around on an “economic mission” that will end up costing Texas taxpayers, including his El Paso constituents, a tidy sum of money. More about that a little later.

Taxpayers in El Paso obviously are angry and didn’t want to raise taxes on themselves during the midst of a recession. The longer it takes for state government to address the basic school finance problem, the more difficult it may become for other school districts – those that haven’t already reached their taxing limits to win local tax elections as well.

Without sufficient funding from the state, even to keep up with inflation, school districts have to cut programs or keep trying to raise local taxes. When legislators cut maintenance and operating tax rates by about onethird in 2006, they also set a cap on future tax increases. They allowed districts to raise their rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation without voter approval and – with voter approval – by another 13 cents.

El Paso ISD, which has less to spend per student than the state average under the inequitable school finance system, already had imposed the 4cent increase. In hindsight, you can question the wisdom of asking for the remaining 13 cents all at once or even question the administration’s relationship with its stakeholders. But the school board and administration aren’t the basic problem. The basic problem is Gov. Perry’s and state government’s neglect of public education.

Now, returning to Perry in China, the governor’s expenses are being covered by TexasOne, an economic development initiative funded by private, mostly corporate donors. That arrangement in itself is rife with potential conflictofinterest problems, something that never has seemed to bother the governor.

But the trip also has budgetary implications, and that makes it hypocritical for the governor, who has been directing everyone else in state government to cut spending in the face of a huge revenue shortfall. The budgetary problem revolves around the governor’s taxpayerpaid security detail, which accompanies him everywhere he goes.

The governor’s office and the Department of Public Safety make it as difficult as possible for anyone to get at the cost, but several news reports in recent months have revealed that the bodyguards run up big tabs, partly because of overtime and partly because they stay at the same hotels as the governor. Perry, after all, doesn’t check into EconoLodges.

Last summer, four security officers spent more than $70,000 – yes, $70,000 – accompanying the governor and his party on a fiveday trip to Israel, where Perry could accept a “Defender of Jerusalem” award, while hobnobbing with energy executives. Last October, Perry went to Las Vegas for one night to attend a bachelor dinner party for his son and meet with a Nevada Republican gubernatorial candidate. Political or personal funds again paid for the governor’s own expenses (which they usually do), but taxpayers picked up the security tab $12,321.

If security for one night in Las Vegas cost that much, how much will several days in China cost? A school district in El Paso could use part of that cash.

Here is a link to a story about El Paso ISD’s plight:


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