Texas needs school finance reform

By the Advocate Editorial Board
July 8, 2017 at 3:21 p.m.
Updated July 9, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Texans fought for independence against Mexico in part because of property taxes.

The battle has waged on ever since.

The latest skirmish is over Senate Bill 2, which now goes before a 30-day special session of the 85th Texas Legislature. Alas, this fatally flawed bill won't settle the question either.

Today's Texans are justifiably unhappy about their property taxes. In part because the state has no income tax, Texas' property tax rates are among the highest in the country. The devil gets his due one way or another.

It is popular every session for legislators to promise property tax reform. The devil always is in the details.

And it's a big detail that has local officials at odds with state lawmakers. Legislators are trying to limit how much local officials can tax property owners while at the same time reducing how much the state provides local governments.

Instead of wrestling control away from local officials, legislators should be focused on school finance reform. The state needs to properly fund education and cut its budget elsewhere. That would be the best for Texas and get local property taxes more in line.

During the past decade, local school property taxes have risen while state funding has fallen. Ten years ago, the state and local property taxes each funded about 45 percent of the cost of public education, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Legislators have managed to tilt this balance to their favor - the state now funds only 38 percent.

Local property tax owners are the losers in this political shell game, and now legislators are doubling down with SB 2. They want to force local officials to go to the voters if property taxes rise by 5 percent and still keep passing unfunded mandates to the same local officials. This surely is a game local officials can't win.

Lawmakers also have pulled the funding rug out from under community colleges and universities, decreasing state support while trying to limit their ability to raise revenue any other way. The University of Houston-Victoria saw its funding cut 10 percent this session. During the past two decades, a similar story has played out at Victoria College; since 1990, the state's share of VC's budget has dropped from 60 to 20 percent. Students and local taxpayers picked up the difference.

Texas has the money to properly support education and its other budgetary obligations, if legislators would have the will.

The Texas House passed a solid bill to remodel the state's school finance system, but the Senate torpedoed it with a school voucher program. That's been the story of this session - the House, led by Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, tries to move Texas forward while the Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, works in the opposite direction.

Lawmakers passed a $216.8 billion state budget to wrap up the session. Incredibly, they couldn't figure out how to adequately fund education in a $216.8 billion budget. Instead, Gov. Greg Abbott opted to keep the political game going into overtime by calling a special session, scheduled to start July 18.

These overtime shenanigans are estimated to cost about $800,000. For what? During the regular session, the House and Senate couldn't settle on a way to reform property taxes. It's highly unlikely they will do anything different in the special session. That's because property taxes are inextricably tied to school finance in Texas, and some legislators would rather play politics than support education.

Texans may never be happy about property taxes, but they need to let their lawmakers know what true reform actually means.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.


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