I write this in the wake of the recent 140-day biennial session of the Texas Legislature. Having had the honor of representing the 1st Senate District in the 71st Session — when the collapse of the price of oil had created record deficits and given rise to creation of the “rainy day fund” legislation I co-sponsored — I feel as though I can share a unique perspective upon the outcome of the session. There are several essential functions of state government: education, transportation and infrastructure, a health-care safety net and economic development.
Our future is represented by our children, and their education for the workforce is essential. Education was finally addressed this session, almost 30 years after introduction of the “Robin Hood” plan to redistribute revenue from wealthy districts to economically disadvantaged districts. This was a Band-Aid and the product of the efforts of then-state Sen. Bill Ratliff and state Rep. Paul Sadler, which shifted local property tax wealth to poorer districts as the state was still recovering from aftershocks of the energy crisis of the late 1980s.
After major cutbacks to funding for public and higher education with the budget crisis of the 2011 session, additional funding has been made available for public education. School districts also got some degree of flexibility to address teacher pay raises, and the Robin Hood methodology, arguably created as a “temporary measure,” has been substantially modified.
More importantly, state funding has been increased. Local property owners have been burdened with an increasing share of the cost of educating our children. After the state’s share was reduced from almost 60 percent of the cost of public education in the 1980s to about 40 percent recently, it has been moved back up to almost 50 percent. This is a step in the right direction.
When the Texas Supreme Court determined in May 2016 that the educational funding process was “broken” but left it to the Legislature, neither the House nor Senate undertook the process of repairing the system. Former Speaker Joe Strauss appointed state Rep. Dan Huberty chairman of the interim committee that undertook this mission and successfully steered the proposal through this session.
The nature of an interim report is to address a systemic problem that is difficult to undertake within the time constraints of a regular session. The process appears to have worked, although the jury is out on whether the plan will be adequately funded in the future or the burden once again shifted back onto the local property owners. Time will tell.
Another issue that bears note is the “cap” on local property taxes, some 2.5 percent for school taxes and 3.5 percent for cities and counties. Much of the angst among property owners had been generated over the past few decades by the reduction in state aid for education outlined above. In the typical school district, city and county taxes pale in comparison to the cost of public schools. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, this new process is implemented or whether a relapse into the old cost-shifting back onto the local school districts occurs.
With respect to public records and open meetings, state Sen. Kirk Watson and state Rep. Giovanni Caprigione should be acknowledged for collective efforts to reverse recent Supreme Court decisions to shroud the expenditure of public funds under a veil of “trade secrets or confidential information.” Funds expended for or in the name of “economic development” should be made public. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Congratulations are in order for Speaker Dennis Bonnen and members of the House for setting the tone for the session, and for Gov. Greg Abbott in assuming an active role in the guidance of the education package.
It should be noted that cultural issues, such as the “bathroom bill” and similar matters, were largely absent from this session. For the moderate views that maintained the focus on the genuine issues confronting the state and substantively addressed them, the people Texas may be thankful. Hopefully, this process will be repeated in the future.
Thank you to the members of our East Texas delegation — Reps. Jay Dean, Travis Clardy, Chris Paddie, Cole Hefner and Sen. Bryan Hughes — and the other members of the Legislature for the sacrifices you and your families have made, and may God bless Texas. Let’s continue to work together on the core issues that are of the utmost importance to the people of Texas.