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Texas House Democrats Looking at Alternatives for School Finance Bill

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX – "This process is supposed to be about the children - but the bill says it's not," said State Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) as the House prepares for a Tuesday debate on school finance and property tax reduction legislation.

At a press conference today, Dunnam said the chair of the House Select Committee on Public Education told members that the bill is about tax relief for all Texans. What it really is, according to Dunnam, "is using our children in an effort to provide a huge tax relief to just 3 percent of Texans," alleging that only the top 3 percent of Texans see "real" tax relief.

"We need to talk about the real focus about this bill - the children." Dunnam said the bill does nothing "meaningful" for the state's public schools or Texas schoolchildren.

As the House prepares for what probably will be a long and onerous debate, Democratic members of that body are working on "meaningful alternatives" to a variety of aspects of the bill, he said.

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) noted that past changes in the state's public education system were aimed at accountability. Part of that accountability, he said, has been done away with when funding was cut or done away with completely for a number of education initiatives - including the Reading Initiative once championed by then-Governor and now-President George W. Bush as well as Gov. Rick Perry. Other initiatives for which funding should be restored, said Coleman, are the Ninth Grade Initiative and the move from half-day to full-day kindergarten. Coleman also noted the state cannot successfully recruit more teachers without a pay scale that is close to the national average.

Resources for those and other initiatives "are available in this bill," said Dunnam.

In analyzing the provisions of the bill that will come to the House floor Tuesday, Dunnam said Democrats used figures from the State Comptroller's Office and the U.S. Census to study five hypothetical family situations. Most of the families in the hypothetical situations - both renters and homeowners - would see an increase in their property tax if HB 1 and HJ 1 pass, he said. And if they smoke or lose at slot machines that could be approved in the bill, their tax burden will be even greater. Dunnam also pointed out that while property taxes are deductible, the new taxes in the proposed legislation are not.

The Waco Democrat said the only persons who "win" with the proposed legislation are those who make $226,00 per year and are living in a $500,000 home. "It forces the taxes further down on the people who can least afford to pay it," he said. Dunnam cited two Enron officials - Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling - whose taxes would be cut approximately $20,000 each. The remainder of Texans would be "paying for a tax cut for the super wealthy."

Accusing the Republican Party of turning from its roots, Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) said that for the fiscal conservatives in the GOP, the bill spends "in the red" in the future "because the revenue stream does not match expenditures."

He said there is "deficit spending" in the bill, pointing out that during the 2008-09 biennium, there will be a billion-dollar shortfall when the deficit catches up.

"For businesses and chambers of commerce who wanted a real solution to the problem," said Gallego, "they get another band-aid. For social conservatives, the bill relies entirely on gambling." The only root that the Republican leadership holds onto, he said, "is stereotypical - relief for the cuts for the rich."

Gallego said that persons making more than $181,000 per year will save $783 million thanks to the bill's provisions, but the 97 percent of Texans who do not make that annual salary will pay $2.6 billion. "Even if it's just about tax relief, it's not very good for Texas or Texans unless your income is more than $181,000 per year."

Formulas in the bill "drive down spending" for most school districts, said Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), with 754 of the state's 1,038 districts to either lose money or gain less than 2 percent. There also is no transportation allotment, no funding for Gifted and Talented programs, no funding for Communities in Schools, or the Alliance Schools Program.

Additionally, he said, the bill was proposed as a way to eliminate the problems associated with the Robin Hood school finance system of recapture. "This bill does nothing to fix it," he said, noting the revenue from growth in property values will still go to the state and be used "to balance the budget in other areas" than public education. He said HB 1 is a formula of "less money for schools, no Robin Hood, and rich districts still spend more."

Dunnam reiterated that Democrats are working hurriedly on solutions to meet the "real goals" of reforming public school finance, but added that most members of the Legislature had only received a copy today of the bill that passed out of the committee Saturday. He is quick to point out that the existing program and formulas are "still better than what's on the table."