Cleburne Times-Review Column for 30 April, 2006
“When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ He asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?’ ‘From others,’ Peter answered.”
And so, once again, like a Biblical plague, a fleet of clown cars descends on Austin to disgorge the nitwits, charlatans, bootlickers and toadies that comprise the Texas Legislature. One imagines mothers pulling their children off the streets in fear and honest men averting their eyes as this horde of incompetents crashes the gates like extremely stupid Visigoths, or the Barney Fife-like posse of a modern Sheriff of Nottingham—stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Only the Texas Legislature, which makes the Iraqi Parliament look like a model of legislative efficiency, could manage to do absolutely nothing as expensively as the rough beast of “reform” currently slouching its way through the Capitol Building. And we have to cut the Iraqi Parliament some slack, anyway. After all, they have little experience with democracy, are used to brutal one-party rule, are rife with vicious sectarian hatreds and dominated by religious fanatics. Oh, wait, I’m sorry; that was the Texas Legislature again.
Let’s do something the Legislature won’t do: examine the problem. Texas spends an average of $7,104 per pupil per year. The national average is $8,287. We now rank 38th among the states (thank God for Mississippi!), which is actually DOWN from 35th last year. Despite increases in costs and enrollment, Texas has not increased education funding since 1999. Of the money we do spend, 51.4% comes from local property taxes, 38.3% comes from the state (a decrease of 2.5% from 2002-03) and the federal government kicks in the rest. Out of all the states, Texas ranks 47th in spending from state sources, and 16th in spending from local sources. Since the amount and value of taxable property varies wildly from school district to school district, that means rural and inner city schools can have higher tax rates, in fact they can max-out their rates, but still have less money than suburban schools with lower tax rates. While it is true, as Right-wingers who hate public education anyway endlessly point out, that money doesn’t automatically translate into a good education, it’s hard to listen to these kinds of bromides from property-rich districts who can afford to hire 13 football coaches for a 3-A school or pay a coach $100,000 per year. The Texas Supreme Court has given the Lege until June 1 to change the current financing system, which they ruled amounts to an unconstitutional statewide property tax—thus, it’s time to send in the clowns.
Now, I never claimed to be all that smart, but it seems to me that the solution is obvious: either pass a constitutional amendment for a state income tax or pass a constitutional amendment to collect all property taxes statewide, and then pass the money out to schools on a per pupil basis. This would result in lower property taxes for most of the state and more money for schools. And, like the state sales tax, if a local school district wants to vote to tack on an extra half-cent to fund a new stadium or whatever, let them do it. And let them keep that money. But, this is the Legislature, so they can’t do anything unless they can find a way to stick it to working people or short-change the children. So, instead, we have HB1 that purports to lower local property taxes by $1, but according to Lt. Governor David Dewhurst really only comes to about 35 cents. And while property taxes are deductible on your federal income tax, the taxes that will be raised to make up the shortfall (or the tax costs passed along to you by businesses) aren’t, so property owners end up getting tooled in the end. Next, you have HB2 that says that all future new business tax revenue has to go to lowering property taxes, which means not a single penny more will be spent on schools. Not one thin dime. Not surprisingly, Rob Orr, having previously voted to give Texans the highest sales tax in the nation, voted like a good little robot against his constituents and against the schoolchildren of Texas for HB2. Couldn’t we just save the money we waste on his legislative salary and buy Tom Craddick a real sock puppet? Or maybe just a remote control device to activate Orr’s vote as needed and eliminate the middle man? I am absolutely dumbfounded at the thought that the voters of Johnson and Bosque Counties would continue to support this trained parakeet.
And finally, you have HB3 which is supposed to close some pretty blatant loopholes that allow some of the largest businesses in the state to duck the franchise tax. A good idea, but the version that passed merely shifts the tax burden off big business and onto the backs of small businesses. Goodies were ladled out to restaurants, banks, real estate and (of course) the oil and gas industry. The net effect stinks so badly, even some Republicans felt their stomachs lurch and are now denouncing it as a “state income tax.” Of course, these same Republicans are living in some sort of Bizarro fantasy world where the second largest state in the union can magically have world-class schools without ever actually paying for them. Perhaps they expect the Tax Fairy to come flitting over and create dollars out of thin air with a wave of her magic wand.
It’s time for the Legislature to grow up! They need to realize what Texans already know: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. If we want good schools, it’s going to cost money. The only way the government can raise money is through taxes. And if we have to pay taxes, the pain should be spread evenly and fairly. Everyone should pay, not just those of us without a flotilla of trained lobbyists in Austin to cut deals for us.