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


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