April 21, 2006
Business tax passess committee, teacher pay raise next?

Yesterday, more of the TTRC tax plan passed through Ways and Means, and more noise was made on behalf of actually doing something about school finance this session.

"There's a lot of support for a teacher pay raise, both Republicans and Democrats. The leadership wants a pay raise," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved a new business tax pushed by Gov. Rick Perry to replace the often-avoided corporate franchise tax and to help pay for a property tax cut. The committee also decided to phase in an increase in the cigarette tax, bumping it up 55 cents per pack later this year and 25 cents in each of the following two years until the tax reaches $1.46 per pack.


The committee also approved a change in sales-tax reporting for people who buy used cars. Under that change, instead of paying a tax on the sale price, someone who buys a used car would have to pay sales taxes based on at least 80 percent of the "blue book" value of the car.


The existence of a surplus has fueled calls from some lawmakers and educators to increase school spending, which Perry's tax swap does not do. More than a dozen education groups on Thursday called on the Legislature to use the special session to improve schools.

"If not now, when?" asked Mike Motheral, legislative chairman of the Texas Association of School Administrators. "We are here before you today gravely concerned about the future of the children of Texas."

Texas State Teachers Association President Donna New Haschke said a pay raise of less than $3,000 per year would not be "respectable."

Senate Bill 1, a $1.5 billion education reform package sponsored by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, would provide a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers. Educators could set aside a portion of the raise for health insurance.

The bill also would provide incentive pay for teachers and money for dropout prevention programs.

"This is an opportunity for us . . . to truly put ourselves in a position to accomplish good things for our students," Shapiro told the committee.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst trumpeted Shapiro's bill Thursday, saying that as legislators focus on taxes, "we cannot forget our children."

Pitts' legislation in the House would provide a $2,000 pay raise for Texas teachers this fall and an additional raise the following year.

House Democrats also called Thursday for the Legislature to increase teacher salaries to the national average.

That call and many other items that I mentioned yesterday are discussed in greater detail here.

On Thursday, Democrats filed legislation to spend billions on public education, including across-the-board teacher pay raises, reducing class sizes, updating textbooks and providing health insurance to all school personnel. They're readying for a battle to ensure their proposals are debated and voted on. And they are touting property tax cuts they say would treat every homeowner - rich or poor - the same.


"We can't obstruct anything," Dunnam said of the Democratic minority. "If the Democrats prevail on an issue, we are providing a better policy for the constituents."

Their legislation, House Bill 83 by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, provided no specific numbers on how much should be spent on schools. But at a news conference Thursday, several House Democrats complained that the $3 billion cut from public education in 2003 has now grown to $4.35 billion. They are suggesting using some of the $8.2 billion surplus to restore those cuts.

Hochberg said the details would be filled in once the size of the Perry tax plan is established.

The argument here is simple, and one that I think will have appeal if it can get heard: In 2003, we cut billions of dollars from education funding because we had a large budget deficit. In 2006, we have a large budget surplus. We should use some of that surplus to restore the cuts we were forced to make in 2003. It's only fair, and it's the right thing to do.

Instead of just cutting the school tax rates, as the Perry plan does, Hochberg's bill would triple the homestead exemption (the amount of a home's value exempt from being taxed) from $15,000 to $45,000. He said that would give every homeowner a $450 tax break in any school district taxing at the state's current maximum rate, though the savings would be less once tax rates go down.

The Democrats said Thursday that they believe the House would approve Hochberg's measure if Craddick gives them a vote. They noted that a similar bill by Hochberg last year received 80 votes.

Voting to spend money on public education might be good politics for the dozen or so House members locked in competitive races this November.

"There is no statewide tax revolt," said Democratic consultant Jeff Crosby. "Just cutting taxes ain't going to cut it. If you are in a competitive district, you better be for bringing more money to your local schools whether you are a Democrat or Republican." There's another dilemma for voting for Perry's tax plan: It proposes to cut property taxes, but it also raises taxes on businesses and professionals, some for the first time.

Even with business groups, doctors and the trial lawyers association endorsing Perry's plan, Dunnam noted, "Nobody ever got beat voting against a tax bill."

The horse-trading, back-scratching, and double-crossing all begins in full on Monday. Hopefully by then the hosts and hostesses of last night's special session kickoff party (which I sadly had to miss) will have recovered from their hangovers and will do the liveblogging thing so the rest of us can watch the train wreck legislative excitement in real time.

UPDATE: Not seeing any news coverage yet, but the following press release from the Texas Democratic Party says to me that the Republicans succeeded in stifling any actual debate on these bills:

(Austin, TX)--Today, House Speaker Tom Craddick and House Republicans passed sham “procedural” rules designed to prevent House Members from using any of the state’s surplus or new Perry tax revenue to improve our children’s schools. The rule essentially denies lawmakers the opportunity to offer amendments, or proposals of any type, that would use these funds for Texas schools.

“Tom Craddick and his Republican foot soldiers are working against Texas children,” said Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Amber Moon. “By voting for the rule that slams the school doors shut and denies even the discussion of much-needed school funding, Republicans have shown they care more about election year politics than providing our children textbooks.”

“The people of Texas have demanded that the legislature invest in our schools in addition to addressing property taxes, but Republicans are holding our kids hostage for a tax bill that doesn’t put one dime into their future,” said Moon. “Students are reading from out-of-date textbooks in over-crowded classrooms. Yet Republicans are refusing to even discuss the pressing needs of our neighborhood schools.”

Democrats in the House have developed the “Hochberg Plan,” which will improve public education and deliver much-needed funding to Texas schools in addition to providing meaningful property tax relief for homeowners. The Democratic plan would reduce class sizes, fund new facilities and technology, raise teacher pay and restore health insurance benefits for all educational employees. However, Speaker Craddick has refused to even allow a vote on the common-sense Democratic plan even though the House passed a similar plan with bipartisan plan last August.

“Democrats in the House are working hard to respond to the demands of all Texans and fix our schools. Unfortunately, the Republican leadership has turned a deaf ear to the message sent by voters in this year’s primary elections--that they are ready for a change from the failed Republican leaders who have turned their backs on the kids, teachers and parents in our state,” Moon concluded.

Typical. Depressing, but typical. Let's hope there's a hell of a fight over all this on Monday. Remember those attack ads I mentioned yesterday, where members were held accountable for procedural votes? Eddie has them all posted, along with the memo. Check it out.

UPDATE: Rep. Pena says that the Republicans' actions so far have stalled the TTRC plan's momentum. Stay tuned.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 21, 2006 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack