There were a couple of absurdities playing out in Austin yesterday over the deep budget cuts to public education. One was in the House chamber at the state Capitol. The other was at Austin City Hall not too far away.
I kept reading media reports about the House debating legislation to cut $4 billion from the public schools. Actually, the $4 billion was cut a couple of weeks ago, during the regular session, when the vast majority of Republicans in the Capitol voted for the new state budget. They already had let that horse out of the barn, to dust off an old cliché.
What the House was debating yesterday was Senate Bill 1, a measure necessary to balance that budget and distribute the $4 billion in cuts among the state’s 1,000plus school districts. If the cuts weren’t so potentially devastating for teachers and school kids, it would have been almost amusing to watch the same bunch of Republican lawmakers scrambling about the House floor, trying to change funding formulas so the misery of the cuts hit someone else’s school district harder than their own.
What did they think the impact on their own schools – and school kids – was going to be when they voted in political lockstep to slash $4 billion from school finance formulas? To feign outrage for the sake of their political backsides at the reality of the districtbydistrict distribution runs was absurd.
Not only that, but Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine gave them one more chance to redeem themselves when he offered an amendment to Senate Bill 2, another fiscal measure, to spend another $4 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to cover the shortfall in public education. About $6.5 billion in that fund – all taxpayer money – is being left unspent. But, again, like so many robots, the Republicans voted overwhelmingly to kill Gallego’s proposal.
A few minutes later, the House, with Republican support, approved an amendment by Democratic Rep. Donna Howard of Austin, which may end up providing some additional financial aid to schools, if it stays in the bill, but it’s no guarantee. Howard’s contingency amendment would appropriate any additional money that may accumulate in the Rainy Day Fund, above the projected $6.5 billion balance, to school districts to help cover enrollment growth, which isn’t funded now.
Meanwhile, over at City Hall, the Austin City Council was holding a public hearing on whether the city should endorse a Formula One racing venture, which would allow wealthy organizers of the event to quality for an annual subsidy of $25 million in state tax money for the next 10 years.
State Comptroller Susan Combs already has cut a deal, promising the state money to the organizers. It would come from the Major Events Trust Fund, a program administered by the comptroller’s office that spends tax revenue generated by big sporting events to help subsidize the events.
In other words, it is a form of corporate welfare to help rich sports promoters get richer. The Formula One allocation is not a lot of money, compared to the total state budget and the shortfall in public education funding. But $25 million would pay the salaries of about 500 teachers next year, based on the average teacher pay in Texas. And that would be a far better use of the public’s money.
Coming during the worst state budgetary crisis in years, the racing subsidy stinks.
The private investors, who hope to reap big returns from the race, promise big public benefits for the taxpayers’ investment. But the Austin City Council would be foolish to swallow all their hype.
According to the Austin AmericanStatesman, there has been a prediction that 100,000 outoftown fans will attend the race, scheduled for next summer on a track already under construction, and while in Austin will shower the city with cash. That number, most likely drawn from little more than thin air, sounds preposterous. As one expert noted, Austin doesn’t have enough hotel rooms to accommodate even onefourth that many people.
And even if the prediction were true, only a handful of local taxpayers would notice any return on the state’s money.