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Progress yes, consensus no

Over the weekend, our only Governor reported that progress has been made towards a consensus that would allow for him to call for a special session on school finance reform.

Perry, a Republican, said his meeting with about 50 members of the House Republican Caucus at a retreat in nearby Boerne was constructive and “moved the ball forward.”

He didn’t discuss specifics but said he believes a consensus is developing on how to tackle the state’s school finance problem.

One area of agreement among lawmakers, Perry said, appears to be in what he calls his “excellence initiative,” which would provide financial rewards for schools that meet certain testing and dropout standards. He also said Republicans and Democrats want property tax relief.

“I have had no Democrats that have come up to me, and send any messages to me, that they want to see property taxes rise,” he said. “So, I think there’s some clear agreement there.”

However, there is no agreement among Perry and the two Republican leaders of the Legislature — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick — on how to replenish money lost through potential property tax valuation caps. The three also do not agree on how to come up with additional money that might be pumped into the school system.

Legislators are divided over whether to overhaul the school finance system now or to make smaller changes with an eye toward replacing it in the future.

I’m giving up trying to read the tea leaves on this one. I have no idea if there’ll be a special session or not, and I have no idea if the intent of a special session would be radical overhaul or incremental tinkering. Just keep in mind that even though after all this time nobody has any clue, last year at this time some Republicans were proposing to eliminate the current Robin Hood plan by 2005 without having a replacement plan in the pipe. You may consider working without a net to be a good way to focus on the issue at hand. I consider it a good way to wind up dead on the floor.

More people seem to be thinking that there will be no special session, and some of them are just fine with that idea.

A spokesman for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been modeling the impact of tax changes on the Texas economy, said: “Be careful.”

“As upset as any of us may be about taxes and education, we don’t want things to be made inadvertently worse,” Michael Sullivan said. “Simply not calling a special session shouldn’t be a bad thing.”

School districts, many of them suing the state, fret that lawmakers intent on lower taxes — including Perry’s proposal to require voter action if local governments want to outspend inflation and population growth — will neglect education aid.

Catherine Clark of the Texas Association of School Boards favors “the plan where the special session never happens.”

Of course, waiting in the wings, is another force to be reckoned with:

Districts have a July 26 trial date for their lawsuit charging a failure to adequately support schools.

They say a World War II-era law limiting local taxes for school maintenance and operations to $1.50 per $100 valuation amounts to a restrictive, unconstitutional statewide property tax.

As of 2003, nearly 500 of the state’s 1,000-plus districts were at the cap, including 13 Bexar County districts: Alamo Heights, East Central, Edgewood, Harlandale, Judson, North East, Northside, San Antonio, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City, Somerset, Southwest, South San Antonio and Southside.

Like others, the judge hearing the suit awaits Perry’s decision.

“Are they going to address it?” state District Judge John Dietz of Austin asked. “If the Legislature doesn’t speak, then the judiciary is going to have to.”

I’m not sure which we should fear more.

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  1. GOPER says:

    Perry will call a special session. It will be the third week of November. Guaranteed. He doesn’t want the specter of the raised taxes he wants haunting the party this fall.

  2. Box 13 says:

    A few questions:

    Will the plan require a constitutional amendment? (and correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t a constitutional amendment require approval by 2/3 of each house of the legislature and a majority of voters)

    If so, will this year’s primary results discourage some conservative Democrats in the legislature from voting with Perry and the GOP leadership?

    Finally, how powerful is the teacher’s union in Texas?

  3. As I understand it, any major overhaul to the tax structure will require a 2/3 vote in both houses as well as a constitutional amendment to be approved by the voters. Talmadge Heflin for one has already expressed doubts about any of the currently-discussed plans getting a 2/3 vote in the House.

    I don’t think this recent primary will necessarily be a factor in how legislators vote on the issues. The fact that nearly 90% of school districts get funding from Robin Hood will be the big thing. That’s why even some Republicans, like Todd Staples, have been critical of plans that don’t appear to address equity adequately.