March 23, 2004
Special Session: Still no consensus

Governor Perry has promised to call a special session on school finance reform as soon as "consensus" is reached on how to replace the Robin Hood system. A quick look around is all you need to see that there's a whole lot of no-consensus going on.

From the Chron:

"It is still the governor's intention to call a special session this spring. No date has been set. He and his staff are working daily toward that end," said Robert Black, a spokesman for Perry.

But so far, legislative leaders have failed to agree on a politically acceptable solution that also will continue to fund schools equitably. Without a consensus, some key lawmakers are wondering whether a special session would be worth it.

Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, is among those expressing doubt.

Staples is a member of a legislative committee that last week released recommendations on how to revamp the current system. But he said the proposals would not close the gap between rich and poor districts.

Only five of the 88 school districts in his East Texas senatorial district must give up some of their revenue under the share-the-wealth provisions of the school finance law known as Robin Hood.

"Ensuring five school districts excel while 83 cannot make the grade is not victory," Staples said. "Every child must have access to a quality education, and quality must not be dependent on their ZIP code."


Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, co-chairman of the committee that issued the report, said she is disappointed with such criticisms.

"Everyone knows that I have said in no uncertain terms and very clearly this will be an equitable system," Shapiro said.

Shapiro supports collecting school property taxes on a statewide basis and then distributing them equitably.

But the Texas Constitution bans a statewide property tax. An amendment to allow such a tax would require a two-thirds vote of each chamber to put the issue before voters.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Talmadge Heflin said he doesn't think there are 100 votes in the House to pass it.

"It would take a small miracle," Heflin, R-Houston, said. "But we've seen things turn before, so you never know."

Heflin said it's also doubtful supporters of expanded gambling could get support in the House to put that issue before voters. Video slot machines at racetracks are an oft-mentioned way to raise about $1 billion.

From the Statesman:

A new "split tax roll" that would provide relief for homeowners is one of the few ways to replace the state's school finance system without raising taxes, Gov. Rick Perry said Monday.

A split roll allows officials to set different tax rates for business and residential properties.

Business leaders fear it would be too easy to increase taxes on businesses while leaving rates low for residential property.

For weeks officials from the governor's office have distanced Perry from the idea, first floated by his chief of staff, Mike Toomey.

In Round Rock on Monday, Perry called the plan a "great idea" that could lead to replacing the state's share-the-wealth school finance system, called Robin Hood by some.

"I happen to think that a split tax roll is one of the only ways that you can get rid of Robin Hood without raising a plethora of new taxes in this state," the governor said.

Perry did not provide details on how such a plan would work. He said he will talk more about a revenue proposal soon.

Perry also defended his proposal to cap property tax appraisal increases; several Texas mayors have said such a cap would hinder their ability to pay for police, trash removal and other basic services.

The idea of a split tax roll hasn't been popular among business-friendly Republican lawmakers. And Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has predicted its failure in the Legislature.

From the Morning News:

[Governor Perry] has proposed a 3 percent annual cap on homestead appraisal increases and new limits on spending by school districts, cities and counties. The restrictions could only be waived with voter approval.

City and county officials already are mounting a counter-offensive against such a cap, saying that it would severely handicap local governments and potentially force them into elections that could cost as much as the new money the entities are asking voters to approve.

Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said the governor's proposed cap would result in a tremendous loss of services for many cities.

"City councils won't go every year to the voters to ask for another $1,000 for a fire plug. They'll cut services," he said.

Shifting revenues, capping property taxes and creating rewards for certain schools and teachers are ideas that all have their enemies, conceded Mike Toomey, the governor's chief of staff.

"This is not easy," he said during a hastily called news conference last week to defend the governor's property tax relief plans against criticism from a host of city and county officials.

Mr. Toomey said it is possible that all or some of the initiatives could fail in a special session. "There's a lot of factors that everybody has to consider and where the votes come from is number one," he said.

More on that counteroffensive from cities and counties:

"Robin Hood lives in the school house, not City Hall," the mayors said in a statement Friday of the current share-the-wealth method of paying for public education. "Plans being discussed to cap or freeze city property taxes as a part of the discussions on public school financing, we believe, are misplaced."


The municipal league, which represents more than 1,000 Texas cities, and the Texas Association of Counties say an appraisal cap would hurt the quality of life in their cities.

"When your trash isn't picked up, you don't call the governor. When the pothole isn't fixed, it's not the governor you call, and when your water comes out yellow, you don't call the president," said Corpus Christi Mayor Loyd Neal Jr. "You call my listed number in the Corpus Christi phone book at 3 in the morning."

And from the Star Telegram:

Noting the lack of consensus at this point, Perry said that the potential for disagreement goes beyond which taxes might have to be raised to pay for reform.

"There are multiple places where a consensus could break down, not just on the revenue side," Perry said. "There are a number of places that the Legislature must become comfortable that this is where we're going to go before a special session will be called."

As Perry spoke, representatives from cities and school districts across Tarrant County were making plans to meet today about how Perry's proposal to cap property taxes might affect their financial futures.

The meeting comes just days after two Tarrant County Commissioners publicly criticized the proposal, saying it would bring cuts to governments already strapped by unfunded state mandates.

The proposal would cap the amount of money local taxing entities such as cities, counties and school districts could raise each year. The limit would depend on the amount of money raised the previous year as well as growth and inflation, but could be raised with voter approval.

Commissioner Glen Whitley said today's meeting will be an information exchange and preliminary strategy session. But he criticized the governor for trying to make local elected officials look like "the bad guys" and wondered aloud why Perry isn't proposing to cap the revenue he presides over instead of what local governments spend.

"The governor is not talking about a state revenue cap, he is just concluding that we are the enemies in this deal," Whitley said. "He has not addressed state revenue or state expenditures."

Looks like we've got a way to go yet. Perry has mostly gotten his way when he's made something a priority - his "no tax increases" pledge before the start of the 78th Lege, redistricting, tort "reform". Will he care enough about this to throw his weight around, or will he let it slide and go on the assumption that he can still try again before the voters get another crack at him? We'll see. I'd say it's even money at this point, but that could change quickly.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 23, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack