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Still talking about recapture

This Chron story from Monday adds a bit more to the recapture discussion.


As one Houston school board member sees it, the district’s November ballot measure regarding the state-mandated forfeiture of local tax dollars offers no good choice for voters.

“Do you want to be shot in the head or stabbed in the back? Both are not pleasant,” trustee Mike Lunceford said of the options.

The Houston Independent School District has been deemed so property wealthy that for the first time it must forfeit local property tax revenue – an estimated $162 million next year – to the state to help fund poorer districts. By Texas law, however, the district first needs voter approval to send away the money. The Houston district’s estimated recapture payment is expected to increase to $257 million in 2018 and to top $1 billion over four years.

The idea of willingly giving local property tax dollars to the state, especially when three-quarters of HISD students come from low-income families, is unacceptable to Mayor Sylvester Turner and other leaders who are urging voters to oppose the Nov. 8 ballot measure. The opposition strategy is an admitted gamble that lawmakers will be persuaded to revamp the state’s school-funding system in the 2017 legislative session.

“The Legislature moves when its back is up against the wall, especially on big issues,” Turner, a former legislator, said this week.

The bet, of course, may not pay off. For one, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican from Houston, does not support the opposition’s approach.

“If the HISD board doesn’t like the current school-finance system, they should come to Austin to work constructively to change it,” Allen Blakemore, a spokesman for Patrick, said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “Instead they lead their voters to make a political statement at a significant cost to the taxpayer.”


Turner has criticized the ballot language as misleading and suggested it could be challenged in court, just as the city was sued in 2015 over its measure concerning term limits. He added that “any half-way decent attorney” could sue on behalf of commercial property owners if their property was sent to another school district. Campaign advertising urging opposition to the ballot measure states that the proposition “is about shutting down neighborhood schools.”

The Houston district has not released how much money it would have to cut from the budget in future years because of recapture.

“We have to make the natural assumption that some of the schools are going to close, some of the programs are going to go away,” said Jeri Brooks, spokeswoman for the vote “against” campaign.

The state never has had to resort to property detachment for taxing purposes. Galveston voters rejected that district’s recapture proposition several years ago, then approved it in a future election.

The Houston school district could hold another election in May – five months into the legislative session – if necessary.

First, let’s be very clear that the suggestion from Dan Patrick’s office that the HISD board “should come to Austin to work constructively to change” the school finance system is risible. Putting aside the fact that Patrick is obsessed with vouchers and bathrooms, it will be a cold day in August before he lifts a finger to help HISD in any way. To the extent that the “no on recapture” crowd has any hope, it’s that they will inspire people around the state to put pressure on their Reps and Senators to Do Something, to which obstructers like Dan Patrick will have to accede. It’s a triple bank shot with a combo to sink the eight ball, but at least it’s a plan, and it recognizes that nothing will happen without external pressure.

The bit about Galveston and possibly having an electoral do-over is very interesting and something that I had not seen or heard before. I’d like to see some confirmation of that, because if HISD could re-vote once it becomes clear that the Lege isn’t going to do squat, then that changes the calculus.

As for Mayor Turner’s claim about the ballot language, all irony aside the language is mandated by the same law that mandates recapture. That was one of the things I discussed with David Thompson in my interview with him, because the language seemed so weird to me. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be struck down – it is very clear by now that the Supreme Court respects the local electoral process only when it feels like it – but it should be noted that this language didn’t come from nowhere.

It’s important to remember that where all of this comes from is the Legislature.

The state of Texas might well spend less on public education in the next budget than in the current one thanks to increasing local school property taxes.

School financing works like a waterbed: Push down on one side and the other side rises. Raise the local share of spending and the state doesn’t have to spend as much.

In Texas, property values are up. With them, revenue from property taxes is rising. For a given level of state spending, that means the locals are paying more and the state doesn’t have to spend as much.

That means, in turn, that state lawmakers don’t have to sweat rising costs like the locals do. And it frees some of those state lawmakers to holler at the locals for rising taxes even as those higher local revenues help the state skate through a tough budget.


According to the Legislative Budget Board, state aid for education rose to $19.59 billion for this fiscal year from $18.24 billion in 2008. That’s an increase of 7.4 percent. But local revenue — generated by property taxes — rose to $26.25 billion this fiscal year from $18.2 billion in 2008, an increase of 44.2 percent.

Ten years ago, the state and local share of the cost of public education in Texas was virtually even — around 44.8 percent each. Federal money accounted for 10.3 percent. Now the locals pay 51.5 percent of the total, the state pays 43.6 percent and the federal government covers the remaining 13.8 percent, according to the LBB’s 2016-17 Fiscal Size-Up.

Rising costs have fallen disproportionately on local districts over the past 10 years. Local property tax bills have risen accordingly, and now state lawmakers are stirred up, promising to somehow get a leash on behalf of those taxpayers.

Here’s another funny statistic from that same LBB report. The number of students attending Texas public schools on the average day has risen 16.8 percent over the past decade, to over 5 million. In 2008, each kid cost the locals $4,219 per year. The state’s cost was $4,226. The feds paid $970, for a grand total of $9,415.

The grand total is now $10,111 — up $696 from 2008. The feds pay $1,015. The locals pay $5,209 — almost $1,000 more per student than they were paying a year ago. And the state? It pays $3,887 per student, or $339 less than it was paying 10 years ago.

Fixing this problem really does start with the Legislature, plus the recognition that if we want something done right, it will not be cheap. However you vote on the recapture referendum, keep that in mind and be sure to only support candidates in 2018 and beyond who understand and are willing to address that reality.

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