The 79th Session of the Texas Legislature began in Austin last week. Once again, politicians promise Texans to solve the state’s woes without raising overall taxes. Once again, voters are likely to be disappointed.
The biggest issue facing lawmakers this session is school finance. Because politicians spent the previous regular session and then special sessions on congressional redistricting, it took a 2004 court ruling to prompt lawmakers to finally address this problem.
House Speaker Tom Craddick thinks legislators can get past the partisan wrangling of the previous sessions. The day before the Legislator convened, he told the National Conference of Editorial Writers that “school finance is not a Republican vs. Democrat issue.”
This year, state senators, led by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, are backing a plan to shrink property taxes — the main source of money for public schools — and reduce local control. The Senate proposal would end local district taxation, replacing it with a statewide levy. In addition, senators want to close the loopholes in the state franchise tax, which just one out of every six companies in Texas actually pays, and cut that tax rate as well.
About half the state’s school districts have reached the maximum tax rate allowed under state law ($1.50 per $100 valuation). The proposed statewide property tax of $1 per $100 of property value would relieve homeowners and other taxpayers struggling to support their local schools. It would also move purse strings for public schools to Austin.
Granted, school districts often don’t spend tax money wisely, but shifting taxation from districts to the state makes it harder for local voters to have oversight of their districts. In fact, Craddick said some rural legislators would oppose the school finance plan.
Legislators face another monumental task — fixing the state’s protective services, which have allowed elderly and young clients to fall through the cracks, resulting in physical abuse, sexual abuse and death. Dewhurst called it a crisis in the state of Texas, and said the state Senate is determined to fix the problem.
Unfortunately, that takes money. Which brings us to another goal of the legislative session, balancing the state’s budget. The day before the session began, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn said that while the state will see $6.4 billion more revenue in the next two years than the amount appropriated for state government in 2004-05, “only” $400 million extra will be available after Texas meets its current spending levels.
In addition to closing the franchise tax loophole, Strayhorn called for a tax on cigarettes and allowing video gambling as a way to raise more revenue. We disagree with using sin taxes or gambling monopolies to fund state government. However, the comptroller offered one way to reduce government spending — the “yellow pages test.”
If a private business exists that can offer the same services at or below the cost to the state, the government should farm that task out. So far, that’s the most we’ve heard about cutting government spending.
Strayhorn is right: Texans need less government, not more. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing easily available in Austin when the Legislature meets — more government.