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Crocodile tears over the school finance lawsuit

This is little more than blaming the victim.

Sen. Tommy Williams

A state judge is expected to rule next week on whether the school finance system is broken, but lawmakers aren’t anywhere near ready to launch repairs.

Instead, Republican leaders plan to wait for an appeal and a final Texas Supreme Court ruling so they know exactly what they are forced to do.

In a twist, some of their rhetoric seems to suggest school districts have only themselves to blame for the postponement of hopes of restoring funds cut back from education two years ago.

The delay in acting is business-as-usual for the Legislature, which as an institution typically waits as education funding problems get bad enough to prompt a lawsuit by school districts. Then lawmakers wait some more, until the state’s highest court outlines the parameters of the mess they must fix.

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said at a hearing last week that lawmakers should pay attention to those who want funding restored for key education programs.

But Williams also stressed the need to weigh that against other education-related funding demands, and he repeated his belief that the ongoing lawsuit makes it difficult for lawmakers to put in additional money for anything other than enrollment growth.

He also seemed to suggest that school districts used the courthouse as an alternative to discussion, odd to those who remember quite a school funding debate in the 2011 legislative session.

“I wish the school districts would sit down and talk to us,” Williams said. “It really ties our hands when they file a lawsuit.”

Please. There was plenty of talk two years ago when the Lege slashed $5.4 billion from public education. How much did you or your colleagues listen then, Tommy? It’s only now that the schools may have the upper hand that the Legislature is talking about the importance of having a dialog. Well, it’s too late now, but I’m sure after Judge Dietz issues his ruling next week there will be opportunity anew for discussion. Let’s not waste it then.

Another reason why spending caps are a bad idea

There are many reasons why, but this is one we haven’t encountered before.

Several political observers well-versed in the state’s finances say that lawmakers could hit the state’s spending limit this session, complicating efforts to access the $11.8 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

The Texas Constitution says the government can’t grow faster than the state’s economy. That growth rate is always set ahead of the session based on the estimated rate of growth in Texans’ personal income over the next two years. Passing a budget that busts the limit requires support from a simple majority of the House and Senate.

While it’s a simple idea, in practice, the constitutional spending limit is about as clear as mud. The exact amount of the spending limit for the next budget remains a moving target, and there is disagreement on some aspects of how the limit is meant to be applied, particularly whether any spending from the Rainy Day Fund is subject to the limit.

“Apparently there’s a lot of confusion out there about what counts and what doesn’t,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst for the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

This year, lawmakers find themselves contending with reaching the limit largely because of the Texas economy’s rapid swing from a recession to a robust recovery. Cuts made in 2011 were based on estimates from the comptroller’s office that revenue would come in at low levels. The rebound happened faster than expected, leaving the current Legislature with a large surplus and calls to spend some of it on a range of expensive proposals, including tapping the Rainy Day Fund to restore billions in education cuts made last session.

“One can argue that we really didn’t need to make many of the cuts in the budget that were made in the last legislative session, including the $5 billion in cuts to public education,” said education finance expert Lynn Moak. “But to get it back, you have to bust the spending limit.”

[…]

In November, the LBB voted to set the growth rate in spending at 10.71 percent. Several people watching the budget process predict that rate should lead to a final spending limit that will allow lawmakers, if they choose, to spend virtually all of the available general revenue this session, expected to be roughly $95 billion after lawmakers pass a supplemental budget for 2012-13.

The $11.8 billion projected to be in the state’s Rainy Day Fund is a different matter. House officials have said the limit applies to most types of spending that lawmakers have proposed for the fund, though certain kinds of tax relief would be exempt. Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, helped write the legislation that created the Rainy Day Fund in the late 1980s, and he said that’s not what the lawmakers who originally approved it bargained for.

“It was never the intent that the spending limit apply to the Rainy Day Fund,” said Craymer. He agreed the issue is now a point of debate.

Well, this is the sort of thing that happens when you let ideology override policy. Surely no business would allow itself to be handcuffed by the inept forecast of an incompetent financial officer, but that appears to be the position Texas has put itself in. The good news, as the Statesman notes, is that so far at least legislators don’t appear to be willing to tie themselves down in this fashion. Rep. Donna Howard has filed a bill to clarify that the Rainy Day Fund is not subject to this spending cap; the bill in question is HB652. There’s hope that we can work around this without anything too dumb happening.

This assumes that Rick Perry doesn’t make the situation worse by pushing through an even tighter cap, because doing stupid and harmful things like that is his job. Scott McCown explains why this is such a bad idea.

If a family budgeted this way, no matter how much money the family made, it could never improve its life. Imagine sitting down to write your first family budget. Naturally it is lean, but you have dreams of a better future — a safer neighborhood, a graduate degree. Under the governor’s proposal, though, even as your income increased, you would be stuck living under that lean budget adjusted only by family growth and household inflation. You could never make your life better.

Not being able to make things better would be a big problem for Texas. However you measure it, Texas ranks low in spending. Our systems for education, water, transportation, mental health, child protection, and many others are struggling. If we could adjust our current lean budget only for population and inflation, we could never make major new investments to improve our state.

The governor’s proposal has another big problem: Not only could a family not improve its life, periodically things would actually get worse. As the Great Recession reminded us, income doesn’t always go up. Sometimes breadwinners suffer a pay cut or lose a job, and a family has to cut its budget. Under the governor’s proposal, this lower level of spending would become the new base.

For a family, that would mean if it made $35,000 last year, but only $30,000 this year, its budget for next year would have to be based on the lower figure even if it made $40,000. Yes, even after the family’s income recovered, it couldn’t increase spending. No family would budget in a way that prevented recovering from a setback, and no state should, either.

The governor’s formula also uses the wrong measures of population and inflation. A family budget isn’t based merely on family size, but on family composition — whether the family is budgeting for a baby, for a child in college, or to care for grandma matters a lot to the bottom line. Likewise, a state can’t merely consider growth in total population; a state must consider who it is actually serving. For example, in Texas the rate of elderly who potentially need assisted living through Medicaid is projected to grow twice as fast as our total population between now and 2040.

And just as a family wouldn’t base its budget on government inflation, a state shouldn’t base its budget on household inflation. Families and governments buy different “baskets” of goods and services. A much higher portion of the state budget, for example, goes to buy health care, which is increasing in cost faster than household inflation. By using the wrong measures of population and inflation, year after year, the governor’s proposal would force Texas to do less and less for fewer and fewer.

As far as Perry and his cronies are concerned, doing less and less for fewer and fewer is a feature, not a bug. As always, now is an excellent time to let your State Rep and State Senator know that you want them to work on solving Texas’ problems, not making them worse. It’s not their job to tell future legislators what they can and cannot do. EoW has more.

The revenue estimate is in

And under normal circumstances it would be very good news.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, laying out the parameters for state spending on the eve of the legislative session, said Monday that the rebounding Texas economy gives lawmakers $8.8 billion unallocated in state coffers for this budget period and an improving picture for the next two years.

The extra money has been eagerly anticipated by state lawmakers who two years ago slashed spending in the face of a budget shortfall.

In the 2014-2015 budget period, the state’s general revenue from taxes, fees and other income is estimated to reach $96.2 billion, with $3.6 billion earmarked for future transfers to the rainy day fund, Combs said.

The total $101.4 billion available for general-purpose spending through 2015 – taking into account the predicted $8.8 billion balance and future revenues – is 12.4 percent greater than the corresponding amount of funds available for the current budget period, according to the comptroller’s office.

To clarify what this means, Comptroller Combs is forecasting that the state will generate $96.2 billion in revenue for the next biennium. Of that, $3.6 billion is earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund, which leaves $92.6 billion. However, Combs is also saying that her forecast from two years ago was too low by $8.8 billion. You may recall that two years ago she predicted there would be $76.5 billion in revenue for 2012-2013, with $4.3 billion needed to close a shortfall from the 2009 budget; the Rainy Day Fund was used to cover most of that shortfall. In actuality, there turned out to be $85.3 billion. Oops!

You may wonder why Combs was so far off in her estimate. The DMN tries to be sympathetic.

Nobody is blaming Combs, but all recognize a two-year revenue forecast is not, by any means, an exact science.

“You’re always wrong,” said Billy Hamilton, revenue estimator when Bob Bullock was comptroller. “It’s just a matter of by how much.”

The Texas Constitution requires a balanced budget, so lawmakers can plan to spend only as much as they’re projected to bring in. A large portion of revenue comes from state taxes, which until recently had been on a relatively stable 40-year pattern, said fellow number cruncher and retired fiscal analyst Stuart Greenfield.

But in the last four years, the state’s economy has been especially volatile. Greenfield said tax collections have declined four times since the new millennium, most recently in 2010, but has been higher than average the last couple of years.

Hamilton, now the interim chief financial officer for Capital Metro, Austin’s public transportation provider, estimates Combs was off by $6 billion to $8 billion in the tax revenue estimate for the current biennium. Greenfield says it’s worse, predicting tax revenue will be closer to $11.5 billion more than what Combs suggested.

Officials from the comptroller’s office declined to weigh in on Greenfield or Hamilton’s forecast, but spokesman R.J. DeSilva said that with growth in the oil and gas industry and car buying, the revenue for fiscal 2012 is up $3.7 billion from her forecast, and lawmakers will have the most up-to-date projections when they convene.

Greenfield said tax collections have held at 10 percent since the beginning of fiscal 2011, peaking in October 2011 at close to 16 percent. Hamilton says the result is “we’ll be swimming in money.”

“It’s going to be a big number because the sales taxes are going like gangbusters and performing at a rate that nobody in their right mind would predict,” Hamilton said.

This is all well and good, but the bottom line of Combs’ misfire is that the Lege cut billions of dollars from the budget that ultimately didn’t need to be cut. We may be able to do something good with this extra money now, but we can’t go back two years and un-fire all those people who lost their jobs as a result of the Republicans’ budgetary chainsaw massacre. We can’t go back and un-shortchange all the school districts and students that took those cuts right where it hurts. It’s all so much bloodstained water beneath the bridge.

Given that we can’t un-screw the past, the best thing we can do is work to make things better going forward. This is what many people, such as State Rep. Mike Villarreal, State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, and the Texas AFT, both of whom are calling for the restoration of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education last session, are doing. The problem, and the danger, is that some people are saying that what this means is that we have too much money.

Can Texas afford to eliminate its state business tax?

As the federal tax bite grows, there is a nascent movement at the Texas Legislature to phase out the tax, commonly called the margins tax, without replacing it.

Business leaders and some conservative lawmakers say the tax, which taxes gross receipts as opposed to profits, is complicated and not applied evenly. Other critics of the tax say dropping it would make the state’s business climate even more attractive.

At first blush, eliminating the tax without a replacement might seem improbable. The tax raised $4.5 billion in 2012 and accounted for 10.3 percent of the state’s total taxes, according to the comptroller’s office.

Budget writers are already warning that any “surplus” from the rebounding economy must be used to restore $11 billion in cuts to public education and other programs from the 2011 legislative session and to pay for the accounting gimmicks lawmakers used to sidestep more cuts and tax increases. And the courts are hearing another constitutional challenge to the school finance system — similar to the one that prompted the 2006 creation of the margins tax — that could make more demands on the state pocketbook.

State leaders are also talking about weaning themselves from $5 billion of dedicated taxes and fees diverted from their intended purposes over the years to help balance the state budget.

Finally, more business leaders are expressing concerns about the need to invest in education, workers’ training, water, transportation and other long-term needs essential for a good business climate.

Despite those hurdles, Will Newton, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, argued that public services can’t expand without a growing economy.

“We’re starting the debate in the wrong way,” Newton said. “We need to ‘invest’ in the private sector to grow (state) revenue.”

Let’s be clear here and state that the NFIB, which was and continues to be a rabid opponent of the Affordable Care Act – they were, in fact the named plaintiff in the lawsuit that sought to declare the ACA unconstitutional – is acting solely in its own interest. They’re seeking a tax cut, as we all do, and hoping that we’ll forget that the margins tax, however flawed and kludgey it may be – was designed to help pay for a one-third cut in property taxes. How do they expect us to fund that massive expenditure now? By assuming, in the words of Molly Ivins, that it’s nothin’ but good times ahead. I mean, sure, we’ve had two ginormous revenue shortfalls in the last decade, but seriously, who expects that to ever happen again? No amount of empty blather about “investing” should distract from this point.

One more point: As the Trib notes, even with this healthy revenue forecast, we’re still behind where we ought to be.

“$108 billion is what it takes to actually undo the last session and get us back to where we used to be,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, senior budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based think tank.

Early in the session, lawmakers are expected to commit several billion dollars to paying off bills that were purposely left unpaid at the conclusion of the 2011 session, including nearly $5 billion for Medicaid. That leaves the actual size of the surplus unclear.

“A lot of that gets sucked up right away just paying for the last session,” Castro said.

One hopes that the nearly-as-fat-as-it’s-allowed-to-be Rainy Day Fund would be tapped for that, since that’s what it’s there for, but the odds that the votes are there for that are basically nil. But this is the way we need to drive the discussion. We’re on more favorable turf now, let’s take advantage of it. Trail Blazers, the CPPP, and TM Daily Post have more, and you can see the official estimate here.

Two minus five is still less than zero

It’s nice that Speaker Joe Straus wants to restore public education funding, but let’s be clear about what that means.

Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday he’s committed to pumping billions of dollars back into the state’s public schools, even though the Legislature approved historically deep cuts just last year.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the San Antonio Republican said “we will fund enrollment growth going forward,” which he estimated will be a $2 billion item when lawmakers head back to work Jan. 8.

“The good news is we’re dedicated to doing that, committed to doing that,” Straus said.

Texas’ booming population means its current 5 million-plus public school enrollment increases by as much as 80,000 every year. But the 2011 legislative session failed to provide enough new funding to keep up with enrollment, instead passing $5.4 billion in overall cuts to public education and classroom grant programs for things such as pre-kindergarten programs — sparking the state’s first decrease in per-student spending since World War II.

Straus wouldn’t say he will push to find the additional $5.4 billion necessary to roll back all of those funding cuts. He did say, though, that since Texas’ economy has weathered the recession and is strong again, lawmakers have more options.

Covering growth for this two year period and going forward is one thing – in fact, it’s what the Lege always used to do. Putting schools back where they would be if the $5.4 billion in cuts from the 2011 had never occurred is another, and it’s hard for me to see how adding in $2 billion will do that. The Lege changed the way the basic funding formula was calculated. Is Speaker Straus talking about reverting that back to how it was, or coming up with a better formula, perhaps in anticipation of the ruling in the school finance lawsuit, or is he talking about a one-time band-aid? What about the money that was cut from pre-K, is that in scope here or not? I’m just trying to understand whether this is a real attempt to undo something bad, or just a little sleight of hand to make it look like such an attempt. We can’t tell from this story. Perhaps Democrats can get some clarity on this as they discuss whom they might support for Speaker this session.

One more thing:

More than 600 school districts have sued the state for failing to meet Texas constitutional mandate to fund public schools. Most observers expect them to win, but it could be years before the case works its way through the appeals process.

Actually, as I understand it, there’s just one appeal, to the Supreme Court, and it is supposed to be expedited. The expectation is that the Supreme Court will make its ruling in 2014, in time for the 2015 legislative session.

How the so-called “fiscal cliff” might affect Texas

There is of course a very simple way to avoid this.

Best when done in Acapulco

If President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans cannot avoid tripping off the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, then the Texas budget could be more than $1 billion short over the next two years.

But fewer federal dollars flowing through the state budget would be just part of the problem for Texas.

The state could feel an even bigger pinch because Texas is so dependent on other federal dollars associated with defense, homeland security and border protection, said Eva DeLuna Castro, senior budget analyst for Center for Public Policy Priorities.

The potential for cuts to the state budget and to direct federal spending in Texas is serious enough that state lawmakers plan a hearing on the issue next week, with testimony invited from state agency officials and others about the possible impact.

Federal spending in Texas is about one-fifth of the total economy, DeLuna Castro said. Based on 2010 figures, $226 billion federal dollars were spent in Texas. Social Security made up $43 billion of the spending; Medicare accounted for $16 billion, and defense spending totaled $59 billion, DeLuna Castro said.

As far as the state budget goes, automatic federal spending cuts – which would be triggered Jan. 2 by the sequestration outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011 — could reach $1.1 billion and affect 13 state agencies, according to the state’s Legislative Budget Board.

Just as a reminder, this dispute is over 1) the Republicans’ refusal to approve an extension of the Bush tax cuts for families making under $250,000 a year unless those making over $250,000 a year get the same extension for the top tax rate, and 2) the stupid “sequestration” budget cuts that the Republicans insisted on as part of the deal they made when they took the debt ceiling hostage in 2011. They’re holding out on saving tax cuts for the wealthy even though they have no leverage since the law will change and all tax cuts will expire if nothing happens by the end of the year and the voters made their preference clear last month in the hope of reaching a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction that gives them everything they want. All that needs to be done is for the House to pass the bill that the Senate already passed to extend the tax cuts for all but the top bracket, and there’s a discharge petition in the House that needs 26 Republican signatures to force a vote on that. The sequestration cuts can be easily undone as well, it’s just a matter of the GOP accepting the results of the election and the reality that tax rates are going up no matter what Grover Norquist says. This isn’t rocket science.

Plaintiffs rest their case in school finance lawsuit

Phase one is over.

Hundreds of districts suing the state over its school finance system wrapped up their case Wednesday with testimony that largely blamed the Legislature for creating the current funding crisis that stripped away an unprecedented $5.4 billion from public schools.

After more than six weeks of testimony, the four plaintiff groups of school districts put on their final witness, who summarized the main arguments against the funding system and asserted school districts will never be able to properly educate all their students without major changes.

On the list of the biggest challenges for schools are a rapidly increasing number of lower-income students, a new testing program that is already seeing widespread failures, the inability of districts to raise enough local tax revenue, and a cycle of funding cuts that is thinning teacher ranks and increasing class sizes.

John Folks, former Superintendent of San Antonio’s Northside ISD and 2011 Superintendent of the Year, was the closing witness for the school districts.

Folks discussed the impact of education budget cuts on Northside ISD, where officials cut spending by $61 million before the Legislature took away another $85 million for the past two academic years.

The district has cut computer specialists, library assistants, gifted and talent teachers, counselors, coaches, special education teachers and classroom teachers. In all, 80 elementary teachers, 80 middle school teachers and 64 high school teachers were eliminated, Folks told Judge John Dietz.

“We went from 6,218 teachers in 2010-11 to 5,972 in 2011-12 at a time when our enrollment increased by 2,500 kids,” he said, adding that Northside had to increase elementary class sizes for the first time.

Folks also described the structural deficit the Legislature created while passing the 2006 school-finance bill. Legislators miscalculated when they reduced school property taxes and replaced the revenue with a new business tax, which fell “far short” of what’s needed to replace the property tax cut, he said. The problems were compounded when lawmakers used one-time federal stimulus money in 2009 to fill the revenue hole.

“It (stimulus funds) was one-time money. We urged them not to use that money to fill the hole because it was going away. They were told not to put that money into recurring expenditures, but that is exactly what the Legislature did,” he said.

Like most Texas school districts, Northside’s student population is undergoing a major transformation. In the past 12 years, the district’s percentage of low-income students has jumped to 54 percent from 41 percent.

“As you get more of those students in your district, you have to have the resources needed to help those students be successful. I hold them to the same standard as I do other students who are not low-income or limited-English proficient,” Folks said.

He said districts have limited options to deal with their recent funding reductions.

“There is no meaningful discretion anymore,” Folks said, explaining Northside ISD has not held a tax-rate election to raise its current maintenance and operation rate of $1.04 because it has been forced to have a bond election every three years to handle tremendous enrollment growth requiring new schools.

And now Phase Two begins.

Shelley Dahlberg, lead counsel for the state, said during opening statements in late October that the school districts must prove that they are spending their money efficiently on providing students foundational knowledge rather than on extras such as iPads, teacher aides and sports.

“They make big, big budget decisions within their discretion,” Dahlberg said.

The Legislature has delegated a substantial amount of local control to the school districts when it passes on public money to them, Dahlberg maintained, so it would not be fair to fault the state for the districts’ failure to use that money wisely.

Speaking directly to state District Judge John Dietz, Dahlberg added: “I would ask you to look at district choices.”

[…]

Of the districts’ arguments, the most sweeping — and difficult to prove — is that the state has failed to provide adequate funding to ensure that students can meet the increasingly rigorous academic standards mandated by the Legislature.

In the 2005 school finance ruling, the state Supreme Court seemed to put the Legislature on notice that it could be headed for trouble absent reforms. The court cited substantial evidence that “the public education system has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change, whether that change take the form of increased funding, improved efficiencies, or better methods of education.”

But the high court did not uphold the district court’s finding that that system violated the Texas Constitution.

“An impending constitutional violation is not an existing one, and it remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes,” the Supreme Court wrote.

The state has homed in on that court language to suggest that the districts are jumping the gun in bringing the case so early in the roll-out of the new, more rigorous testing and accountability system.

So the state’s argument is basically “it’s too early to say that there are any problems, and if there are we can fix them later”. That may be true, but it won’t be of much use to the students who will be ill served until “later” arrives, whenever that is. Still, the state doesn’t have to have a compelling case, because the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs. That’s always a high bar to clear. We’ll see how much of a dent the state can make in the districts’ arguments.

Eight billion dollars

That’s how much is needed per year to make public education whole.

Lynn Moak

Lynn Moak told state District Judge John Dietz that it will take more than $8 billion a year in additional money to get students on target to graduate and to meet new college and career readiness standards. About 150,000 9th-grade students, or 47 percent of last year’s freshman high school class, are not on track to graduate, according to the state’s more rigorous academic standards, Moak told the court.

“We are in a current crisis. The crisis gets worse in the future,” Moak said during a break in the hearing. “The crisis is sufficient now to demand action.”

[…]

Moak told Dietz it will take about $6 billion in additional money per year to adequately educate Texas students, on top of restoring $2.65 billion per year in education cuts that lawmakers made last year to help balance the budget.

“If we don’t see improvement, you will see even larger numbers of students at risk of not being able to graduate,” Moak told the judge, who said he planned to grill policy experts on both sides.

[…]

The new accountability standards are hitting low-income students the hardest. Only 40 percent of them have passed all of the 9th grade tests, which are required for high school graduation.

The number of low-income students increases each year and now makes up more than 60 percent of Texas’ 5 million K-12 public school enrollment. Low-income students generally cost more to educate because many arrive in kindergarten or first grade with less-developed vocabularies and other skills than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Republican legislators last year cut $4 billion from public education formulas and another $1.3 billion in special grants, such as full-day Pre K programs for low-income children and student success initiatives for tutoring and summer school programs to help struggling students.

Moak said he could not assess the impact on schools and students.

“I do not know of any significant legislative review to determine if these programs were not needed or were not producing good results,” he said.

Spending per student in Texas peaked at $7,415 in 2009, and has dropped to $6,293 in 2013, Moak said.

I don’t expect there to be any significant legislative review. I don’t think the authors of these cuts want to know what their effect was. The Statesman notes that while only 40 percent of low-income kids are passing the required tests, 69% of non-economically disadvantaged students are passing. You can expect that gap to grow.

All this came from direct testimony – the state had not had the chance to cross-examine Moak as of the writing of those stories – so there will likely be more of these depressing numbers to come. The Moak, Casey website is a pretty good resource for following the trial on a blow-by-blow basis. Here’s an interesting tidbit from their embedded Twitter feed: “Moak: from 10-11 to 11-12 school year, 26.5k fewer teachers and staff while Texas schools added 44.5k students #schoolfinancetrial #txlege”. With numbers like that, what happened next should not surprise us.

Cuts are not increases, no matter how you spin it

This is the Chron overview of HD134, which is once again the highest profile legislative race in the county, in part because it’s a referendum on the 2010 election and the cuts to public education funding that resulted from that election.

Ann Johnson

In an area that takes great pride in its schools, [Rep. Sarah Davis] went along with her fellow Republicans and voted for major cuts in education funding.

As a result, District 134 is one of the few House seats believed to be in play. Although Davis has the incumbent’s edge in a Republican-leaning district, the race has become one of the most competitive – and expensive – in the state. Both candidates are spending freely, blanketing the district regularly with mailers.

“We knew there were funding cuts coming down the line for Texas schools,” said Sue Deigaard, a stay-at-home mom, “so, as a community, on a grass-roots level, we organized, we engaged other parents to give Sarah Davis the support as a legislator to say, ‘Hey, as you’re casting your vote on the budget, you have hundreds of parents, 400 petitions, hundreds of letters, phone calls, emails in a district you won by 750 votes.’ ”

Their message, Deigaard said, was “to, basically, give her the support, so that she could vote in a different direction from her party. And, as her record shows, she didn’t do that. So now we have this very motivated base of parents, bipartisan – Republicans and Democrats – who are supporting Ann Johnson.”

Davis, a fiscal conservative who is moderate on social issues, insists that Deigaard and other parents should not have been surprised.

“When I was campaigning, we all, particularly me, were campaigning on a message that we had a $27 billion budget deficit, and we’re going to have to balance the budget,” she said one evening recently. “I am opposed to increasing taxes or finding revenue, and I won, as did a hundred other Republicans, probably campaigning on the exact same message.”

So Davis, who as I have said before is a reliable, down-the-line Republican representative, claims that she campaigned and won on a promise to cut spending in 2010. Which is fine, as far as it goes, except for one small thing: She is now running away from those cuts that she made as fast as she can. Patti Hart calls Davis out for a blatantly dishonest campaign mailer that tries to claim she didn’t do what she actually did.

I called [Scott] McCown to get his reaction after seeing Republican Houston Rep. Sarah Davis’ latest campaign mailer, which claims that her Democratic challenger, attorney Ann Johnson, is spreading fiction in her assertion that Texas Republicans cut $5.4 billion from public education last year. On the cover, Davis invokes the dictionary, sharing this definition of fiction: “A belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so.”

To back up her allegation that school budget cuts are a figment of Johnson’s imagination, Davis then asserts that Texas lawmakers actually added $1 billion to our schools. Johnson’s math, she tells us, includes “President Obama’s one-time stimulus money, that simply wasn’t available the following year.”

The mailer goes on to assert, with great umbrage: “So Johnson is blaming Republicans in Austin for what a Democratic President did in Washington. This happens all the time: liberals in Washington throw a bunch of money at programs, and then in later years leave the state to find the money to keep them going.”

In a campaign season full of tall tales, this may be the whopper that tops them all. State lawmakers in 2009 used $3.6 billion in federal stimulus money instead of state dollars to fund public education – essentially supplanting federal support for state support. In 2011, the Legislature added back only $1.6 billion in state money to replace the federal dollars.

To claim that the Legislature “increased” funding to public ed is, as I wrote when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made this claim, to have giant amnesia about the stimulus.

Now, Davis is using the state’s 2009 contribution to education as a baseline for comparison to state funding in 2011, and blaming Obama that the dollars fall short. It’s as if Davis is saying, two meals a day is more than what those kids were getting before Uncle Sam stepped in!

This outrageous claim – that Republicans didn’t cut public education funding – has been rated “Pants on Fire” by the newspaper fact-checking service, Politifact, on several occasions this year.

And Politifact’s researchers didn’t rely on the opinions of Democrats, noting that during the legislative session, Senate Education Chairman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said: “Nobody wants cuts. But we have to have them.” And House Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, predicted the cuts would amount to 4 percent to 5 percent, which he characterized as “not that big a cut.”

The writers’ conclusion: “So, lawmakers ultimately cut public school aid, with key leaders even acknowledging so as those decisions were sealed. To tell constituents otherwise is not only inaccurate, it’s misleading and ridiculous. Pants on Fire!”

Even Hart is understating how egregious this is, because Davis and her fellow Republicans all voted for the House budget that cut $10 billion from public education. It was the Senate’s refusal to accept that budget, and to restore half of the cuts made by the House, that left us with the $5.4 billion in cuts that we got. Try to square that with a claim that Davis “increased” funding to public education.

Maybe none of this will matter. It’s still a Republican-leaning district. Johnson may well not be able to convince enough people what happened and what they need to do about it now. Maybe that day of reckoning isn’t here yet, though if it hasn’t come by the 2014 elections I don’t know when it ever will. Be that as it may, I’m happy to have any campaign be waged on these terms. The more that candidates an officeholders run away from the idea of cutting education funding, the better.

School finance lawsuit starts today

Ready or not, the latest school finance lawsuit, which Judge John Dietz has called “the granddaddy of them all”, begins today in Travis County. The Statesman takes a look at the history of school finance and associated litigation, and how we got here.

In a 2006 special legislative session, lawmakers reduced local school property tax rates by one-third and dedicated more state money to the schools to replace the local money. So that no district suffered as they rebalanced the share of state and local dollars, legislators temporarily froze districts at the amount of per-student funding they were spending at the time and planned to implement a long-term solution the next year.

But the freeze was never lifted. There was no appetite in 2007 to dive back into school finance after years of tortured debate over the issue, and the problems with the temporary system were not immediately evident to legislators.

For some districts, the freeze came at a bad time. Pflugerville, for example, was in the middle of a growth spurt and a leadership change and had yet to invest in the programs needed to serve the districts burgeoning population of low-income students and English-language learners. Yet the district was locked at a low level of funding.

Compared with neighboring Round Rock, Pflugerville gets about $720 less per student. If funded at the higher level, Pflugerville would have an additional $19 million a year in its $160 million budget — or nearly 12 percent more, Superintendent Charles Dupre said.

There is no rational policy reason for the difference, said Dupre, who is also president of a coalition of more than 430 school districts that are advancing theequity argument.

“Pflugerville has always been fiscally lean. We have never had fluff or waste in our budget,” Dupre said. “Since 2006, we have been living in a stressful, perpetual state of budget reduction. … When they set in stone the target revenue, they basically codified inequity in our system.”

Past court rulings have found a $600 funding gap to be “minimally acceptable,” but the funding disparities now have increased by two and three times that amount, according to MALDEF, which is representing one of the plaintiff groups. Funding now ranges from about $4,000 per student to more than $12,000.

School districts with the most wealth have the most to lose, and they are making a different argument against the current finance system. They have avoided the equity argument in their briefs because of concerns that the potential remedy would probably hurt them without helping the overall public education system, lawyer Mark Trachtenberg said.

“To focus on equity doesn’t really capture the real problem with the current system,” Trachtenberg said. That problem, he said, is inadequate funding: The Legislature is asking districts to get students to ever-higher levels of academic performance without providing them sufficient resources to do so.

“We are making claims that, if successful, will benefit all districts,” said John Turner, another lawyer representing the property-wealthy school districts.

And you thought early voting was the biggest thing going on this week. The stakes here cannot be overstated. We won’t have a final answer until the Supreme Court has its say, but there’s an awful lot hanging in the balance for them.

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

Health care access continues to shrink in Texas

Who needs family planning services? I mean, every kid is born to people who want and can care for them, am I right?

About 15 percent of Houston-area clinics that received state funding for family planning services closed their doors because of budget cuts last fiscal year, and another 30 percent have reduced service hours, according to a study published this week.

Following a political firestorm in the 2011 legislative session, state family planning funds were cut from $111.5 million to $37.9 million for the biennium, cutting services to as many as 180,000 women in Texas a year, according to state health department officials. The number of clinics funded by the Texas Department of State Health Services has dropped from 300 to 136 since the Legislature slashed funding, state officials said.

“Ostensibly, the purpose of the law was to defund Planned Parenthood in an attempt to limit access to abortion, even though federal and state funding cannot be used for abortion care anyway. Instead, these policies are limiting women’s access to a range of preventive reproductive health services and screenings,” a team of academics from the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine article.

That report can be found here, via this Trib story that notes a total of 53 such clinics closed their doors statewide.

In addition, the report states, many clinics are now charging for services that were previously free, raising prices for other services and restricting access to more effective methods of contraception that are more expensive.

To meet the requirements of the new priority funding system, the Department of State Health Services told the researchers that the state stopped funding 35 of 76 family planning clinics in the 2012-13 biennium. The budgets of family planning clinics that still received funding were reduced by up to 75 percent. As a result, about half of the clinics that closed — 25 — were family planning clinics, according to the report.

Well-woman exams and contraception “remain out of reach for some of the poorest women,” sociologists conclude in the report. “The organizational leaders we spoke to reported that women who can pay the newly instated fees are choosing less-effective methods, purchasing fewer pill packs, and opting out of testing for sexually transmitted infections to save money.”

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said at The Texas Tribune festival on Saturday that many programs took financial hits last session because of the state’s budget shortfall. Funding that was cut from family planning “went to pretty noble places,” such as programs for children with autism. He also said the tiered funding system lawmakers implemented has brought new women’s health providers to his rural district.

But state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, disagreed with Hughes. She said family planning providers in her district have told her that many clients can no longer afford to see them because they have to charge for services that were free before.

“We have the highest uninsured rate in the country,” Howard said at the festival. “If we want people who do not have the means to provide their own health care to be able to be healthy productive citizens, then, absolutely, we need to be looking at supporting family planning.”

And the Republicans, led by Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, are doing everything they can to ensure that Texas maintains that national lead in uninsured population. Again, there is nothing in the Republicans’ decade-long control of the state to indicate that they consider this to be a problem. And you have to love Speaker wannabe Hughes‘ excuse for cutting family planning: It was either that, or we stick it to the autistic kids. Because there were absolutely no other possible options available to them.

Former Trib writer Thanh Tan, now living in Seattle, puts all this into a national context.

And what are the consequences of cutting off family planning funds to women in a state like Texas? The Legislature’s own non-partisan budget team predicts at least 20,000 additional Medicaid births, for one thing. We’ll have to wait and see whether that actually happens. The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has reported higher-than-normal rates of diagnoses and death from cervical cancer along the Texas-Mexico border. It’s worth noting that cervical cancer is treatable if detected early. The greater challenge is convincing women to get screened in the first place.

So why do I care about this issue so much, even though I’m no longer living in Austin?

Overall, the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities points to Census data that shows the U.S. added 2 million kids in the last 10 years– half of that growth came from Texas. One in 11 kids in the U.S. is a Texan. They’re growing up in an education system that lawmakers underfunded this biennium by $5.4 billion. The textbooks they’re learning from are highly controversial. Public schools only teach abstinence, even as the teen pregnancy rate ranks 4th in the nation.

For now, Texas is responsible for all those kids. But someday, they will grow up. Like me, they may even head to the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, I believe we all have an interest in ensuring that Texas women are healthy and become parents when they are ready. I admire those who choose to follow through with an unplanned pregnancy and become parents. But in too many cases, the consequences can be disastrous. I’ll never forget the experience of walking through an emergency shelter in San Antonio that was filled to capacity with abused and neglected children. The executive director told me it was a daily struggle to convince some kids they didn’t have to stuff their pockets with food.

Many opponents of family planning in Texas say they made the tough decision to reduce funding because of budget woes. Others deny birth control works. Most Republicans in the Legislature accuse Planned Parenthood of using the funds to prop up their abortion services. It’s all balderdash — claims based on political ideology over reason and science.

Federal studies have shown that for every dollar the state invests in family planning, more than $3 is saved. Helping women plan and space their pregnancies often means that they and their children will not be born into subsidized health care or have to rely on the state for basic nutrition needs. It’s a way to break the cycle of poverty, promote self-sufficiency and save taxpayers’ money in the long run.

Yeah, too bad we’re not doing any of that. We must love poor people in Texas, we do so much to ensure we have a steady supply of them.

It’s usually a bad idea to bet on any kind of overhaul in the Lege

I agree that it’s a sucker’s bet to think that the Lege will try to fix Texas’ tax code in any meaningful way. Nobody likes having to take votes that may later be used as clubs against them in a campaign, and the lobbyists swarm like no other time when someone’s tax break is on the line. But such an overhaul has to happen eventually.

For Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat who serves on the House Ways and Means and Appropriations committees, it amounts to financial mismanagement by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“Frankly, when you have a governor who says he will veto anything that even looks like a tax bill – even if it’s a reform of an existing, broken tax – it gives little reason for legislators to devote resources to proposing tax legislation,” Villarreal added.

Not that Villarreal and others haven’t tried.

Former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican who is retiring from the Legislature, last year sought a revamp of the chronically underperforming business tax, warning that local school property taxes would otherwise rise. The business tax was expanded in 2006 to help pay for lower local school property tax rates, but it has fallen short of projections. Ogden also has called the exemption-riddled sales tax system a “rickety” thing.

[…]

Villarreal has pushed to create a special commission to recommend exemptions ripe for elimination. It’s an uphill battle, he said, since tax code reform is “the right thing to do in the long term” but presents little short-term political gain.

“We do not scrub our tax code the way we scrub our budget. Every legislative session we open up the budget. We go line by line down the expenses that we approved in the entire session asking ourselves, ‘Is this working?’ ” he said. “In the tax code you can put an exemption in place and have it never be seen again.”

As I’ve said many times before, nothing will change until the state’s leadership changes. It makes no sense that tax expenditures never get the kind of scrutiny that every other kind of expenditure gets. To use the overworked analogy, it’s like going over your household expenses line by line every month, but never reviewing your investment portfolio to see what’s performing well and what isn’t. Of course, every exemption, exclusion, and loophole in the tax code was put there to benefit some interest group with the power to fiercely defend it, and that makes it a much harder fight. But we can see the consequences of avoiding that fight. Those chickens are going to roost whether we’re ready for them or not.

Cutting spending is always good for job creation

It must be true.

Eagle Ford Shale

A study by the University of Texas at San Antonio estimated that 20 counties in the Eagle Ford Shale supported 47,097 full-time jobs in 2011, a number that’s expected to grow to 116,972 full-time jobs by 2021.

For now, many of the jobs in demand are for truckers. And a pay range of $25,000 to $80,000 a year is attracting many applicants, according to Workforce Solutions Alamo officials. But even solid job applicants are being stymied by the licensing system, panelists said.

The whole process of getting the commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is backed up, said [Leodoro] Martinez, who also is chairman of the Eagle Ford Consortium.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is responsible for handling commercial driver’s license applications.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said that DPS “is addressing the increased demand for CDLs with our existing resources, and our examiners are processing them as quickly as possible.”

The department is expected to continue having to make do with existing resources. Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, said that because of budget cuts, he isn’t hopeful that the Legislature will be able to increase funding to help expedite applications.

So, were it not for the budget cuts last year, these applicants would have an easier time filling these much-needed jobs, thus making life better for them and making the economy better for all of us. And even with sales tax revenues up and a cash balance of over $5 billion, the odds of these cuts being reversed are slim, partly because the last Lege deferred a huge amount of obligations to this biennium, partly because it’ll cost more money just to keep up with growth, and partly because our government leadership has its head up its posterior. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough magic in the free market to overcome determined shortsightedness.

Land Board throws the Lege a curveball on school finance

Oops.

In the waning days of the 82nd Legislature, state lawmakers came up with a plan to help cushion the blow of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education.

State Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, proposed a constitutional amendment that he said could bring an additional $300 million to public schools. It unanimously cleared both the House and Senate. Orr’s measure became Proposition 6, which voters passed in November.

But that money has hit a roadblock on its way to public schools — and what looked like an easy fix for hard-pressed budget writers last May has turned into a headache that awaits their return in January.

The amendment allowed the School Land Board, which operates out of the General Land Office, to put a portion of earnings from investments on real estate assets into the Available School Fund, which along with property and sales taxes helps pay for public education. Last week, the little-watched board that oversees the state’s public school lands decided not to distribute the money. Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who sits on the three-member board, said it wanted to protect the funds for upcoming investment opportunities.

Usually the proceeds from the sale and management of public school lands would go into a $26 billion trust whose revenue feeds into what’s called the Available School Fund. Proposition 6 made it so the School Land Board, if it chose, could bypass that step and put money directly into the fund.

“We anticipated this funding for public education,” said Jason Embry, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. “We’re evaluating the impact on the budget and working with Commissioner Patterson to ensure there is no impact to public schools.”

Whether lawmakers should have expected the money is a matter of dispute. But the $300 million made it into the budget as part of general funds used to support school operations, contingent upon the constitutional amendment’s passage in November and the School Land Board’s approval of the transfer. During the special session last June, the Legislature added a provision to the appropriations bill that reduced general revenue funding to public education by $300 million if the amendment passed. It was to be replaced with the same amount from the Available School Fund with the board’s approval — but there was no provision to add that money back in if that didn’t happen.

“I was told that there would be $300 million going into the Available School Fund. Everything was put in place to allow to that to happen,” said Orr, who said the General Land Office agreed to transfer the money if the amendment passed. “I believe it needed to happen, so I’m not sure why it didn’t.”

Patterson said he did not recall committing to a transfer of the money and that his office had been unable to find “any evidence or documents or memos or testimony” that he did.

“I don’t have any control over what was written into the budget or what was made contingent. I don’t know who wrote that in there or why,” he said. “Somebody wrote a contingency rider assuming the answer would be yes.”

See here, here, and here for some background. If you look in the comments on those posts, you will see that Commissioner Patterson was never on board with this idea, so if the Lege was assuming that the School Land Board was going to go along with this idea, well, you know what they say about those who assume. I don’t think I realized till I read this story that the Lege had actually appropriated the $300 million based on that assumption; I must have been assuming that they would have made a supplemental appropriation at a later date once the Land Board signed off on it. Let that be a lesson to me. They’ll have to make a supplemental appropriation now, so you can add another $300 million to the Lege’s tab of unmet obligations from 2011. Good thing the Rainy Day Fund is full, because we’re really going to need it next year.

“Rather than trying a real solution to school finance they keep doing the little gimmicks and sleight of hands,” said David Bradley, the Beaumont Republican who chairs the Board of Education’s finance committee. “The Legislature is the problem. It’s totally improper for them to be pulling that kind of money out of these trust funds to use for general revenue funding.”

I hate having to agree with David Bradley, but he’s right. It’s on the Lege to fund school finance, and with the job they’ve been doing it’s no wonder we’re back in court a mere seven years after the last lawsuit was decided. I’m sure this seemed like free money to them – I admit, my first reaction was along those lines – and maybe that helped salve a bit of the guilt from having slashed $5.4 billion (and having voted to slash over $10 billion) from public education. But it was never a solution even if it did work.

What will the excuse for austerity be now?

We’re in the money, as it were.

Comptroller Susan Combs on Wednesday released updated details of how much money Texas is expected to collect in taxes and fees in fiscal year 2013, which begins on Sept. 1.

The report, prepared as Texas seeks $9.8 billion in short-term loans, indicated that the state will bring in about $2 billion more than Combs had previously estimated for 2013.

In addition, sales tax collections for the current fiscal year are running about $1.5 billion ahead of projections, while the business franchise tax has exceeded estimates by at least $300 million.

Combs previously reported that the state was sitting on a $1.6 billion cash balance from the previous budget, which brings the ever-changing total well above $5 billion.

[…]

An additional $5 billion would help lawmakers cover a tab for Medicaid costs that they must pay next year. That obligation has fallen from $4.8 billion to an estimated $3.9 billion as fewer people have enrolled in the health care program and changes aimed at controlling costs take effect.

[…]

The rainy day fund might be near capacity.

Combs expects the account to reach $8.2 billion by the end of 2013, almost $1 billion more than she projected in December. That amount would appear to approach the limit set on the fund by the state constitution.

Production taxes from the oil and gas boom are filling up the reserve fund, said R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for Combs.

So the Rainy Day Fund is full, and the revenue projection may well be undershooting the mark. If we’re not restoring the funds that were cut from public education and a host of things besides, what are we going to do? This is why I say that the 2013 legislative session will be a major factor in the 2014 elections, because there’s a fundamental question about budgets and government services that needs to be answered. Do people have the expectation that the cuts made in 2011 were simply in response to the finances of the day, with the equivalent expectation that better times means putting things back as they had been, or do people believe this is the new normal? It’s not too early to start planning how to get voters to arrive at the answer you want them to.

Our high maintenance Governor

Ka-ching!

This corndog brought to you at taxpayer expense

Texans have been billed $2.2 million in out-of-state travel expenses for Gov. Rick Perry’s security detail since his November 2010 re-election, including his failed presidential bid and other trips ranging from vacations to state business and political gatherings, according to updated figures released Friday.

The new report released by the Texas Department of Public Safety freshly tallies $199,060.07 in expenses for Perry’s security detail within and outside Texas, with most for out-of-state trips.

The report covers the March-May fiscal quarter. It also includes expenses dating back to the September start of the fiscal year that came in after earlier reports were compiled.

[…]

Perry’s direct travel costs generally are paid by his campaign, but expenses for his security detail are paid mainly through the state highway fund, which includes proceeds from the state gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees.

Travel costs in the report include such items as airfare, rental car, food and lodging.

The quarterly report doesn’t include overtime for Perry’s security detail, which totaled more than $2.8 million from November 2010 through February. The overtime total includes trips within and outside of Texas.

The largest recent travel expense tallied in the report was a trip to San Diego, Calif., for $27,143.76.

[…]

“It seems like everybody else is tightening their belt, except for him,” said state Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, House Democratic Caucus leader, referring to state budget cuts and the potential of more to come. “If he’s asking for us to tighten our belts, he needs to look for a few notches himself,” Farrar said.

Perry and his staff have repeatedly turned aside the idea that he should cover the security costs, saying Perry is governor wherever he is and noting that previous governors also had security.

I do agree that governors travel as part of their jobs, and that they are entitled to security when they travel. It’s appropriate for those expenses to be paid by the state, and frankly that’s far superior to his trips being funded solely by campaign contributors. We have enough of a pay to play culture in our politics as it is, thank very much. That said, it is also the case that we are, as the Governor himself likes to proclaim loudly, in lean times that call for sacrifices and cutbacks. It would be nice if Perry could lead by example for once in his life and save us all a bit of money by travelling less often. The private sector uses virtual conference rooms, NetMeeting, Skype, Office Communicator, stuff like that as low-cost substitutes for travel. Perhaps the Governor’s office should look into that.

TAB takes a hostage

Can’t say I’m surprised by this tactic.

Leaders in the business community said Wednesday that they would not stand for increased funding for education if it came with any rollback of accountability standards in Texas public schools.

“If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained.”

The Capitol news conference, held by the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, comes as the standardized testing that is the backbone of the state accountability system is facing considerable backlash from parents, educators and lawmakers.

[…]

Wednesday, members of the workforce coalition — which includes groups influential in the Legislature like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Business Leadership Council (formerly the Governor’s Business Council) — made clear they would not support any kind of tweaks to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. An attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler to do just that during the last legislative session failed with the opposition of the business community.

“Before this landmark piece of legislation, HB3, is even fully implemented, we have people who want to roll it back and go back to fight the old wars about teaching to the test and all these other myths that are out there,” said Jim Windham, chairman of Texas Institute for Education Reform.

They argued that the existing system is the only way to ensure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.

“STAAR testing is an excellent step towards ensuring that the state’s education dollars are being directed into the classroom so that college- and workforce-ready students emerge from Texas public schools,” said James Golsan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

To be blunt, these guys are full of it. The TPPF thinks we spend too much on education to begin with, and TAB is about as likely to support any measure that would actually increase revenue for education as Rick Perry is. Saying they’ll oppose an increase in funding for public education unless their demands are met is like Willie Sutton saying he’ll oppose the hiring of more police officers unless those pesky bank robbery laws get repealed.

On a more general note, I don’t understand the single-minded focus on the STAAR tests. Everyone wants accountability, and everyone wants students to graduate having received a good, comprehensive, useful education, but why in the world must we believe that STAAR tests are the only way to achieve that? I agree with this:

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer whose daughter will be a sophomore at Anderson High School next fall, said she was offended by the insinuation that parents are being led around by superintendents.

“We are smart enough to see what that system is and is not doing and we can perfectly understand on our own that it is a badly flawed system that needs to be fixed,” said Majcher, who listened to the news conference at the Texas Capitol.

“I think it is inappropriate to hold public funding hostage to repairing the problems that we all know exist with the current testing system,” said Majcher, who is part of a new parent group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. “The testing system is badly implemented, badly flawed, there are a lot of groups, a lot of parents who are working very hard to make positive corrections to that. I would not call that rolling it back. I think when we see a mistake, we make a course correction.”

Exactly. We’ve been pushing various accountability measures for 20 years in Texas. Some have worked well, others not so much, but it’s been an ongoing experiment, with tweaks, adjustments, and changes of direction as needed. To believe that the STAAR and only the STAAR can achieve the goals these guys says they want is myopic and suggests they care more about the process than the result. Turns out, even some prominent Republicans see it that way, too.

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said Thursday that the state’s current public education accountability system is “broken and badly in need of fixing.”

During testimony at a hearing of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development on career and technology education, the former state GOP chairman expressed his disagreement with a coalition of business leaders and a conservative think tank that announced Wednesday it would oppose any additional funding to public education if there were any rollback of existing accountability standards.

Pauken, who along with two other commissioners oversees the development of the state’s workforce, said he was surprised that the coalition claimed to speak for the business community and conservatives as it defended the existing testing system.

He said he had found widespread agreement among business leaders, teachers, school district officials and community college representatives he had spoken to around the state that “teaching to the test is one of the real reasons that we have a significant skill trade shortage.”

Pauken said he spoke as both a businessman and a conservative when he criticized the position taken by the coalition.

“The current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test,” Pauken said, adding that a consequence of the system was that “‘real learning’ has been replaced by ‘test learning.’”

Hammond and his buddies are speaking in their own interest, not those of schools, students, or parents. We should not take their little tantrum seriously.

HISD will not raise the tax rate

Instead, they will dip into their reserves to balance their $1.5 billion budget for this year.

The amount is about the same as last year, when the district reduced spending by approximately 5 percent to offset unprecedented state cuts.

Instead of seeking a tax increase – which the school board has been reluctant to embrace – [Superintendent Terry] Grier has recommended spending $9 million, or 3.5 percent, from savings next year.

“I would hate to arbitrarily raise taxes at this point when we don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” said Mike Lunceford, president of the Houston Independent School District board.

HISD is one of about 600 districts suing the state, claiming funding is inadequate. Lunceford said he is hopeful that lawmakers will revise the school finance system next session.

[…]

[HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett said the district cannot continue to spend its fund balance. The account contains $257 million, about two months’ worth of operating expenses. HISD also plans to use $18 million from one-time federal jobs funding to close the budget shortfall.

“The district and the board will have to address how to balance this budget next year,” Garrett said.

The budget was adopted Thursday night. I’m sure the improved real estate market, which has led to higher property tax revenues and thus greatly eased the budget situation for entities like the city of Houston, enabled HISD to get close enough to balance to take this approach. A lot of the cost cutting they did last year – i.e., staff reductions – carry over as well. Still, as Garrett says, they can only go to their reserves for so much. Especially with a big bond package on the table for this year, they will need a healthy amount of reserves to ensure good bond ratings.

That bond package was unveiled Thursday as well, and unlike this year’s budget it will mean higher taxes down the line. Most of the focus will be on the high schools. You can see the details in School Zone and Hair Balls. The Board has not yet voted on Grier’s bond proposal, but there is some early opposition.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche criticized the plan for not including a new High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, her alma mater. Grier acknowledged the facility is lacking but said he wants to sell the valuable property on Dickson and find a new site.

Stipeche said she opposed changing the location, which is convenient to internships at downtown law firms and to students who transfer in from across the city.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, made a special appearance at the board meeting Thursday night to tell trustees he did not support the bond proposal as is, particularly the slight to Law Enforcement.

You can’t have everything. I don’t think that’s sufficient reason to oppose the entire package, but by all means until such time as the board has voted on it anyone who is unhappy with some part of Grier’s proposal go ahead and fight to make it better as they see fit.

STAAR pushback

The House Public Ed committee gets an earful.

Members of the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday questioned why the first batch of students who took the end-of-course exams scored so poorly. For example, 55 percent of ninth-graders met the minimum passing standard on the English writing test, and only 3 percent hit the college readiness standard that will be required in 2016.

“Is it a function of the instrument? That’s one answer. Is it a function of student attainment? That’s a different answer,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

They got few answers. State education officials said there is not enough data to draw conclusions with only one administration of the test.

[…]

Superintendents from across the state testified that the number of high school dropouts could skyrocket in the coming years because almost three-quarters of the students who failed the exams this spring were already considered at risk of dropping out.

In order to graduate, high school students must achieve an average passing score in the four core subject areas: math, English, science and social studies. Students who have failed two or three exams might give up because they will lose hope that they can catch up, said Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder, who testified at the hearing.

Manor Superintendent Andrew Kim, who also testified, said he supported the increased rigor of the end-of-course exams. But he said the state needs to help districts help students who struggled on the tougher test by allowing districts to start school earlier in the year and providing greater aid for students with limited English skills.

Only 8 percent of the ninth-graders with limited English skills met the minimum standard on the writing test, even with some accommodations. Educators asked legislators to give those students an extra year to get up to speed and offer the tests in the student’s native language.

Schroder drew applause from the audience when he called for eliminating a mandate that the end-of-course exam score count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

The Trib has more on this.

The 15 percent rule was designed to create “skin in the game” for students taking the exams, said Amarillo ISD Superintendent Rod Schroder and Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg. But students already have two other incentives to perform well, they said — the cumulative exam score they need to graduate and the minimum scores needed to pass each test.

The committee also heard testimony from TEA officials, who addressed difficulties in timing STAAR exams. Currently, exams are administered about a month before school ends, so teachers have not yet covered all course material.

If exams are administered later, schools will not have time to see the results before starting summer school for students who must retake tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, the agency’s director of its Student Assessment Division. In turn, summer school cannot be pushed back because that would interfere with the start of the next school year.

Given this year’s timeline for exam return, there is no way to resolve the timeline of the statewide exam so that it covers the entire course, said Tyler ISD Superintendent Randy Reid.

“I don’t see any solution to them getting the scores back in a timely manner,” Reid said.

Any new system is going to have some bugs to work out, but the issues here are pretty fundamental. I get the desire for more rigor, but it really sends a message that the push for higher standards comes at the same time as a $5.4 billion cut to the budget. The students that will have the greatest difficulty with the STAAR or any other accountability measure are exactly those who have the greatest needs. Jay Aiyer takes a closer look at the test scores and what they mean.

First and foremost, it is critical to understand what the test results actually say. If final standards scheduled to take effect in 2016 were used today, only 41 percent of students in biology, 39 percent in algebra 1, 40 percent in world geography, 46 percent in reading and 34 percent in writing would have passed. Based on this data, we can logically conclude that nearly 60 percent of high school students lack mastery of the tested subject at a level consistent with a student who is college-bound. If we analyze the data further, we see that students in affluent districts and students in admissions-based magnet programs far outperformed students in schools with large, economically disadvantaged populations. Unfortunately, this is consistent with a multiyear trend that strongly correlates family income with student performance.

This is true in Texas, across the country and around the world.

In fact, the Houston Independent School District, with a student population that is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, actually outperformed the state and many suburban districts, when the data are adjusted by income.

It is also important to note that the nearly 60 percent passage rate roughly corresponds to the percentage of students currently enrolled in remedial education classes at two and four-year colleges in our state. What STAAR results seem to have identified are students who are not on pace to graduate ready for college.

If we recognize that STAAR is simply a reflection of the underlying problems in public education, much of which is caused by economic factors that are outside the schoolhouse, what do we do?

Remediation can only do so much if you ignore the underlying issues, which is what we have always done and will keep doing, with even greater vigor these days. Meanwhile, the schools that are being told to do more with less now have to spend a bunch of money they don’t have on remediation. Don’t expect anything to be different next year.

Are the end of course standards too low?

Beginning this year, high school students must pass new end of course exams in a variety of subjects in order to be able to graduate. These tests begin in the ninth grade and continue through the 12th. The standards will be relaxed for the first couple of years while everyone gets used to them. Some people think the state is going too easy on the schools by doing it that way.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has said the agency decided to phase in the standards, starting lower this year and increasing them through 2016, because students need time to adjust to the much more difficult questions on the new exams.

But a prominent business leader and the head of the state’s largest school district suggested the lower bar at the outset will give students, teachers and the public a skewed picture of schools’ performance.

‘False sense of security’

“It gives all of us an inadequate report of where we are,” said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier. “It gives you a false sense of security.”

Grier said he would prefer to start with the higher standards, even if it means more schools earn the state’s lowest academic rating.

“If they’re unacceptable, they’re unacceptable,” Grier said. “We need to accept the fact that they are what they are and get very busy trying to improve them.”

The standards also drew criticism from Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business.

Hammond said the scores should accurately reflect whether students are being prepared for college and careers.

The TEA plans to release statewide scores from the new tests, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, this week or next. Scattered reports suggest that students struggled, even with the lower passing standards.

Ninth-graders who took the exams in spring 2012 must answer between 37 percent and 65 percent of the questions correctly to pass, depending on the subject. By 2016, freshmen will need to correctly answer 60 percent to 70 percent to pass most of the exams.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said districts should have reports this year that show how students would have done had the higher standards been in place, so the information can be shared with the public.

I guess I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s normal to phase things like this in, the only difference here is the four year timeline instead of a two year timeline. Based on what Ratcliffe says, the schools should know exactly where they stand even if their rating starts out higher than where it would have been. You can see the TEA’s STAAR Resources page for all the relevant information. The main concern that I have heard about the STAAR tests, beyond the usual aversion to our increasingly standardized-test-centric school culture, is that it will exacerbate our already worrisome dropout problem. These tests are a big change, and we’re implementing them at the same time as we’ve slashed five billion dollars from public education. I am perfectly fine with taking it slowly to see if there are any negative effects before going all in on yet another high stakes test.

Revenues rise, but reality recognition doesn’t

Good news and bad news, because we can’t have one without the other.

The latest bit of positive fiscal news came Tuesday when the state comptroller released numbers showing that business tax collections in Texas had exceeded projections.

Comptroller Susan Combs had estimated that the franchise tax paid by businesses would bring in about $4 billion in the first year of the 2012-13 budget. The $4.3 billion collected in May has already beaten that mark, and more payments will trickle in come August.

Sales tax collections, the most important source of state revenue, have also been coming in well above projections for the budget year, which began in September, and could produce billions in unanticipated revenue.

But state agencies, in the first step toward writing the 2014-15 state budget, were instructed Monday to submit budget proposals that do not exceed what they are getting in the current two-year budget.

They must also provide plans for how to implement a 10 percent reduction during 2014-15, if necessary.

[…]

“We are getting so far and far from reality that it really endangers our future economic growth,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for low- and middle-income Texans.

State leaders have created a “new normal” as a starting point, particularly in education, and “that is a terrible place to start off on, especially when they have the money to undo the cuts,” DeLuna Castro said.

That presumes they want to, which they don’t. They will have to be made to do so, or they will have to be gotten out of the way in favor of others who want to do so. Easier said than done, of course, but there it is. And while Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Joe Straus are busy crowing about how their draconian policies led to these revenue increases, Burka provides a dash of reality.

Overall, tax collections have been robust, up 12.56%, year to date, over 2011 levels. Sales taxes are up 11.71%. Oil severance taxes are up 42.6%. Natural gas severance taxes are up 44.3%.

Perry, Dewhurst, and Straus can claim credit for whatever they want, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have anything to do with putting oil and gas in the ground. EoW has more, and a statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is here.

Today is budget day

The Chron has some questions about the Mayor’s proposed budget. I think the last question is the key one.

What happens if the $34 million in additional property tax and $32 million in new sales taxes forecast by the city do not materialize?

The city bases its property tax forecasts on data from the Harris County Appraisal District, which gives it a bottom line figure on what local property is worth. Sales tax numbers are based on a model that considers population, income, prices and sales. So these aren’t shots in the dark. They are predictions. If collections go south, presumably, the city could draw down its reserve fund without going below a level that would affect the city’s bond rating. However, the city is already tapping it for $30 million in this proposed budget, so it’s not an unlimited backstop.

I think if there’s going to be serious pushback on the budget, this is where it will be. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the city should resist the urge to tap into its reserves, even for a long-term money saver like the sobering center, as a hedge against the revenue projection being too optimistic and/or to replenish what has been drawn down in recent years. Doing that will almost certainly mean that some cuts will be required this year, and I’m going to guess that Mayor Parker would prefer to avoid that if at all possible. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but I’ll be surprised if this isn’t a big part of the dynamic.

It sure would be nice if The Lege would do something about the drought

Don’t count on it, though.

Most of Texas has emerged from its driest year on record, but the turn in weather likely will dampen legislative interest in the state’s water supply.

Water planners, policy experts and scientists said Monday at the Texas Water Summit that they do not expect lawmakers to address increasing water demands when they convene in January because the most populated areas no longer are in severe drought.

[…]

In 2011 alone, the state lost 100 cubic kilometers of water, or 70 Lake Travises, because of evaporation, said David Maidment, director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

That, however, was not dry enough for lawmakers to find a way to fund water development beyond asking voters for authority to issue debt through bonds. The state’s water plan calls for a $3 billion investment in more reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines, among other projects, to avoid shortages during the next 50 years.

“The challenge is to convince ratepayers and politicians that it is worth the cost,” said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for water science and conservation at the Texas Water Development Board. “A lot of Texans take it for granted that water comes out of the faucet.”

Here’s a reminder about the state’s long term water plan. The story says that per capita water capacity peaked in the 1970s after several reservoirs were built and have declined since then. A multi-year drought like the one we had in the 1950s that spurred the construction of those new reservoirs, would be devastating. The fact that we’ve had a good amount of rain so far this year doesn’t mean we’re out of danger for that. There was a bill to deal with this in the Lege last year, but it involved imposing a fee to raise the money for the capital projects, and that never went anywhere. If the drought has mostly eased by next year, it seems unlikely that there will be any sense of urgency on this; certainly, with Rick Perry pushing budget suicide pact, it’s hard to see where the leadership to undertake something like this will come from. If drought conditions have worsened by then…boy, I don’t even want to think about that. The TM Daily Post has more.

Two more ways to divert money from public schools

Number One: Taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy.

The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.

“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”

A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.

“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.

The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.

Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.

While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.

If this sounds a lot like vouchers to you, you’re right. It’s vouchers in a different package, done in a clever way to work around those pesky church-state obstacles. I haven’t seen this particular variant rear its head in Texas yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

That leads to Item Number Two: Virtual schools, which are operating here in Texas.

report released Tuesday by the liberal groupProgress Texas is adding another layer to the controversy over virtual schools, claiming that despite their popularity, the programs have failed Texas students and are run by businesses seeking profit.

“It’s a $24 billion industry with zero accountability,” Progress Texas executive director Matt Glazer said in a statement. “Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education.”

The Progress Texas findings come in response to a March report by  the conservative Austin think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supported virtual schools. The TPPF report claimed that virtual schools save money and can reduce drop-out rates because students who must drop out to work can take classes online whenever they have time. It said that virtual schools can also help students with special needs like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities.

In 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, made up of businesses and nearly 2,000 legislators, created a bill that supported online learning in classrooms and virtual schools. The measure initiated a wave of virtual schools across the country. In 2007, Texas approved Senate Bill 1788, similar to the ALEC model, which created a state-operated virtual school network and supported integrating online learning in Texas classrooms. Tax dollars help fund virtual schools, but businesses run them.

One of the only full-time virtual schools in the state, Texas Virtual Academy, was ranked academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011, yet enrollment in the academy increased 3,203 percent in those years – from 254 students to 8,136, according to the Progress Texas report.

The report is here, and Progress Texas’ press release is here. ALEC was also a factor in the scholarship scam. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are. Read ’em both and keep your eyes open during the next legislative session. There’s a lot more to what’s going on with schools than just the nasty budget cuts from last year.

The Mayor’s 2013 budget

What a difference a year – and better sales tax receipts and a better real estate market – makes. Mayor Parker has unveiled her budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, and it promises no service cuts, no layoffs, and no tax increase.

Mayor Annise Parker

Last year, the city issued 764 pink slips and cut services as budget officials grappled with a projected $100 million shortfall. Projected growth of city property and sales tax fuel an expected increase of $78 million in general fund income for the coming fiscal year.

Parker’s budget proposes spending all of the increase and tapping the city’s reserve account for $25 million. She’s proposing buying several new things with that money:

  • Offering single-stream recycling – the big rolling green barrels instead of the handheld bins – to at least 30,000 more Houston homes.
  • Increasing staffing hours on the city’s 311 help line to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The one-stop line for reporting potholes, getting city service schedules, checking up on your speeding tickets and accessing scores of other city services currently operates 14 hours a day.
  • Putting $2 million into the operation of a sobering center the city hopes to open later this year. Police will have the option of bringing people they detain for public intoxication to the center instead of jail.
  • $5 million for forensic services. It is to be used for improved crime lab operations by a new independent board of directors the mayor hopes to install or on reducing the backlog of untested rape kits.

The police department budget alone is proposed to grow, by $58 million. Much of the police spending increase is explained by built-in increases in pension contributions, health benefits, seniority raises and fuel costs.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release on the budget, which has more details. Looking at this reminds me why I believe that it may be harder for someone to defeat Parker in 2013 than it might have been to do in 2011. The expansion of curbside recycling, which seemed unlikely to happen previously because of the Mayor’s reluctance to seek a garbage collection fee, is the sort of thing that will make voters happy. The sobering center, which has now been approved by Council, will save the city money and will enable it to reach the Mayor’s goal of getting the city out of the jail business. The money for forensic services is a step towards another of the Mayor’s goals, which she addressed in her inaugural speech. Whether or not the city can work out the governance issues with Harris County, getting that done would be a huge accomplishment. My point is that by the time the 2013 campaign starts up, she’ll have a lot more positive things to point to, something that’s a lot harder to do when you’re cutting $100 million from your budget. It’s not a panacea and there are no guarantees, but I do think any potential challengers may find that the road next year is rockier than they thought it might be in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 elections. The environment just isn’t going to be the same.

There’s still a lot to do before we even start thinking about 2013 elections, and first up is Council’s turn to examine and attempt to modify the budget. I’m sure everyone will have their own priorities. And I can’t let this go without noting the following:

Councilwoman Helena Brown alone opposed city funding for the [sobering] center.

“The project can be better accomplished by the private sector,” she said. She also emphasized her opposition to excessive spending and said the sobering center is “like a slow cancer that will contribute to the death of the city.”

And so she voted against an action that will save the city a couple million bucks a year because she opposes excessive spending. We need a new word, to denote when something passes unanimously except for CM Brown who voted against it for reasons only she can understand. Leave your suggestions in the comments. Stace has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story on the sobering center.

Another story about parents and education cuts

I really want to believe that there’s an uprising in the works and that the Lege could be a very different place for the better next year, but I’m reserving judgment on that for now.

Deep cuts in school funding approved by the Texas Legislature last summer could energize angry parents in a way similar to how the tea party movement mobilized conservatives in 2010. In the 150-seat state House alone, at least 29 candidates who are current or former school board members, or have other education experience, are challenging incumbents or vying for open seats in the May 29 primary.

Seventeen are Republicans and 12 are Democrats — and most are pledging to fix Texas’ broken school finance system and dial back the importance of high-stakes standardized tests.

A possible education backlash has [Rep. Marva] Beck nervous and another incumbent, West Texas Republican Rep. Sid Miller, facing a primary challenge that could be tougher than expected. Among several candidates vying for an open seat in suburban Dallas, meanwhile, is Bennett Ratliff, scion of a well-known Texas political family who says his education background sets him apart from a crowded field.

“Funding is not the whole issue, but you can’t continue to cut, and continue to cut, and continue to cut. At some point it does become about funding,” said Ratliff, a Republican and nine-year veteran of the school board in Coppell, northwest of Dallas. His father is former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and his brother Thomas is on the state Board of Education.

Beck and Miller, who was the author of the sonogram bill, are both awful and richly deserve to be ousted, but I’m not prepared to believe that their opponents will be measurably better, even if we just confine the discussion to the issue of public education. At this point, anything short of a commitment to restore the $5.4 billion in funding that was cut from education plus a commitment to work on closing the structural budget hole caused by the 2006 tax swap leaves too much room for the same old same old. I’m glad there’s something out there other than the nihilists that can put some fear into these guys, I just want to see it translate into better votes.

Carolyn Boyle heads the Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which in 2006 supported at least 10 candidates who unseated incumbents or captured open seats. This year, the PAC has conducted more than 25 interviews with pro-education candidates and will endorse an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

“This could be a game-changer election,” Boyle said. “There are so many candidates with rich education experience.”

Republicans hold a 102-seat super majority in the Texas House and while they will likely lose as many as 10 seats due to redistricting, they will maintain control. But next year they take a different tack.

As I said before, being an educator is nice but hardly sufficient. I love what ParentPAC does and I’ll be keeping a close eye on their endorsements this year – so far, I have received emails announcing their endorsements of Republicans Trent Ashby in HD57, Ed Thompson in HD29, Roger Fisher in HD92, Susan Todd in HD97, Amber Fulton in HD106, Jason Villalba in HD114, Bennett Ratliff in HD115, and Whet Smith in HD138; they have also endorsed Democrat Justin Rodriguez in HD125 – but I have not forgotten that all of their previous Republican endorsees marched off the cliff with the rest of their party last year. Not a one as far as I can tell argued against the cuts to education – hell, not a one as far as I can tell argued against the twice-as-big education cuts that were in the House budget. How do I know that once they’ve been elected they won’t take Rick Perry’s budget suicide pledge and give us more of what we got last time? I really really hope I’m being overwrought about this, because we’re not getting a Democratic majority any time soon and we need there to be at least a decent contingent of pro-education Republicans in Austin, but I’m not seeing what I want in the rhetoric just yet.

Republican Mike Jones is a former college instructor and member of the school board in Glen Rose, southwest of Fort Worth, who calls fully funding school districts a centerpiece of his campaign. He says it has raised the profile of his challenge of Miller — a one-time vocational teacher himself who voted in favor of the school cuts.

“It’s like the school district is a Chevy Suburban and it’s been driven by a superintendent … then the state comes and saddles them with a 40,000 pound trailer on the back end of it and starts blaming the Suburban or the principals or the teachers or the kids,” Jones said. “It’s not their fault it’s that trailer put on there. It’s the unfunded mandates and the testing.”

Jones and others have also seized on what they call the state’s over-reliance on standardized testing, which districts are forced to prepare their students for more rigorously than ever despite budgets cuts.

I’m glad to hear this and I agree with what Jones is saying, but it doesn’t take much political courage these days to be anti-standardized testing. I’m happy for these candidates to pursue a more balanced testing policy – as the parent of a rising third-grader, I’ll be delighted to have less to worry about on this score – but let’s not confuse that with a solution for the school finance problem. We may find some savings there, but it’ll be little more than couch cushion money. Dialing back the standardized tests is worth doing on its own merits, but it’s a separate issue from the main event of education funding.

I got those can’t get my car registration done on time blues

I have three things to say about this.

The Harris County tax office is paying 32 clerks overtime on weekends to eliminate a large backlog of unprocessed auto registrations, a potentially serious problem that could force some motorists to drive with expired decals.

Drivers can receive costly tickets and civil penalties for lapsed vehicle registration and cannot use the backlog as an excuse, tax officials stressed.

Since the overtime crew began last weekend, processing the mail-in renewals is down to 12 working days, said Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners. Last week, a clerk answering the helpline said mail-in renewals were taking four weeks because of the backlog in April.

That means potentially thousands of motorists who mailed in their registrations – those expiring at the end of April – did not get them by May 1. The tax office was advising residents who wanted to drive their car legally to come to a tax office or one of 200 local stores where registrations are sold and purchase a second sticker, then apply for a refund when the renewal sticker arrives in the mail.

Sumners blamed the backlog on last year’s countywide budget cuts, which caused a 9 percent personnel reduction. He also cited a boost in local car sales. Auto registrations in 2011 were up 100,000 from 3.3 million in 2010, while new title transactions grew from 845,000 to 880,000.

“We’re operating under a reduced staffing level, as is all of the county,” said Sumners, adding the auto registration section is down 22 employees. “The problem that we have is the volume keeps growing even though the economy’s not good.”

[…]

Paul Bettencourt, the previous tax collector, expressed surprise at the length of the backlog and said that in the past, staff were cross-trained and assigned to busy areas as the work flow demanded.

“They need to shift people to work the backlog,” Bettencourt said. “You put all hands on deck and transfer people in from other departments.”

1. Finally, a story that appropriately quotes Private Citizen Paul Bettencourt! I knew if we hung around long enough this would happen eventually. I feel like I should commission a plaque to commemorate the occasion.

2. It sure is hilarious to see Mister “I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool” whine about the negative effects of cutting government spending, isn’t it? I’m told the answer is to do more with less, Don. Good luck with that.

On a more serious note, I understand that cutbacks do affect us all, that the distribution of auto registrations is not uniform over the year, that there were more cars bought this year than was expected, and that all this is happening right as voter registration cards finally got sent out. I also understand that processing registrations is one of the main functions of this office. Was there really no contingency for dealing with an unexpected increase in the load level?

3. When you blame budget cuts for a problem like this, you’re really blaming Commissioners Court for not adequately funding the office. As such, the absence of a quote from a commissioner is notable. If this had been a story about the Sheriff’s Office dropping the ball on a basic operational matter, I feel confident we’d have been treated to the wit and wisdom of Steve Radack. I wonder what he thinks about this situation and Sumners’ response to it. Campos has more.

No uniform start times for HISD next fall

This surprised me.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier on Thursday withdrew his proposal to change bus schedules and school hours next year after concerns about disruption to families and questions about the cost savings.

This is the second consecutive year Grier has failed to gain support for a standardized bus plan, yet he said he expects to put it on the table again next year as the Houston Independent School District faces a projected $51 million shortfall.

“Before you start raising people’s property taxes, you’re going to be looking at every option you have to save money,” Grier said. “We’re not trying to find ways to make people angry.”

Yet anger, or at least annoyance, has surfaced from parents with varied concerns — starting school too early for children to be alert, starting classes too late for working families, releasing students too late for after-school jobs or extracurricular activities.

I’m willing to stipulate that the current open-whenever-you-want setup is inefficient, and that the goal of increasing instruction time is laudable. I just don’t think that a one-time-fits-all approach is necessarily the right answer, either. Elementary schools should have some flexibility to choose a time that best suits their communities, or at least represents the least disruption for them if they have to change it. Why not allow an 8 AM start option to go along with a 7:30 and an 8:30, and let the schools choose which time they want instead of having it foisted on them by the district? I’m willing to bet those two changes would have cut down on the griping considerably while stiff generating cost savings. I hope HISD is receptive to that idea when they try this again next year.

Rick Perry’s vision for women’s health in Texas

More talk than action, and the numbers don’t add up. Are we surprised?

We can fund it with corndog sales

Texas health officials have delivered a proposal to the federal government that outlines their plans for transitioning the Women’s Health Program from a program primarily supported by federal funds to one that runs on state money. They want the federal government to keep paying for the Medicaid program through October “to ensure that current and future clients of the program have access to family planning services without disruption.”

[…]

The transition packet outlines the state’s plan to find new providers to participate in the program. As it stands, about half of the clients in the Women’s Health Program go to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, and the network receives about 40 percent of the program’s reimbursement funding. Planned Parenthood has filed a federal lawsuit against the state, arguing they are being denied their constitutional right to participate in the program.

Under Perry’s directive, health officials say they are executing plans to operate the program without Medicaid funding and will rename it the Texas Women’s Health Program. They plan to house the program under the Department of State Health Services and to “transition the Medicaid program to a program funded exclusively with state general revenue.” Officials have not confirmed where that funding will come from, or whether it will be diverted from other sources. In response to an inquiry from Democratic lawmakers last month, HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs hinted the state could free up state dollars to fund the Women’s Health Program by seeking federal block grants for other programs.

In addition, the state plans to expand the program’s scope of reimbursements services to include paying for treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. The Medicaid Women’s Health Program was intended to provide early detection and diagnoses; women were referred to other medical providers for treatment of their health issues.

Though family-planning providers have expressed confusion and uncertainty over their futures, HHSC officials maintain there will be a “seamless transition for clients and providers.”

The state’s proposal outlines plans to conduct a campaign that will include more robust referral services and outreach via radio, mailings and brochures. The commission plans to expand its call center’s scope of services to help clients find providers.

Before you get impressed at the idea of Texas expanding services and outreach, remember two things. First, they have to find enough non-Planned Parenthood providers to make up for all of the clinics that will no longer be able to receive this funding. This Chron story gives the reasons why, but for the most part it’s that it’s not a moneymaker for providers. Second, just this Monday at his no-tax-a-palooza Rick Perry was calling Medicaid a “ticking time bomb” that threatens to wreck his state’s budget. You may recall that at Perry’s direction, the last Legislature underfunded Medicaid by nearly $5 billion, a hot check the next Lege will have to use the Rainy Day Fund to cover. Perry’s bright idea to solve the Medicaid crisis he talks about is by implementing block grants. Block grants work to control costs because once they run out, that’s it. Whatever your need is, this is how much you have to spend. You get to control costs because you get to decree what they are. Can anyone envision a scenario where that is consistent with expanding a health care program that must first work to bring in a passel of new providers to replace a well-established nonprofit? Me neither. Either this state-funded alternative to the WHP will be so penurious that no one will want to participate, or its costs will grow at least as rapidly as Medicaid, thus bringing that ticking time bomb closer to kaboom. Well done, Governor! This whole thing continues to be vaporware, and getting an extension on the deadline to have its ducks in a row is unlikely to help the state of Texas figure it out.

Perry’s budget suicide pact

I have four things to say about this.

What Rick Perry wants to do with the extra revenue

Borrowing a tactic from national anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, Gov. Rick Perry used a tax day appearance in Houston to propose a no-new-taxes pledge for Texas lawmakers, a pledge that would, in his words, “lead to a stronger Texas.”

[…]

Perry laid out a five-part Texas Budget Compact that, in addition to no new taxes, called for truth in budgeting, a constitutional limit on spending tied to the growth of population and inflation, preserving a strong Rainy Day Fund and cutting unnecessary and duplicative programs and agencies.

He also urged the continuation of the small-business exemption to the Texas franchise tax.

“Each and every member of the legislature or anyone aspiring to become a member of the legislature should sign on,” Perry said.

[…]

Jeff Moseley, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Houston Partnership, endorsed Perry’s compact.

“The pro-business policies and accountable and responsible budgets adopted by Gov. Perry and legislators have given Texas an enormous advantage when competing for high-paying jobs, and helped Houston prosper to become the top region for corporate relocations in the U.S. in two of the last five years, including in 2011, and these principles will keep us on that path,” he said.

1. Everybody recognizes this as a gimmick, right? I mean, there’s nothing new here, just the same old rhetoric wrapped up in a slightly different package. Beyond that, there’s no purpose to any of this. I mean, what exactly is the point of pouring money into the Rainy Day Fund? The original purpose of this fund was to provide economic stability in times of budgetary crisis, but apparently we’re not doing that any more. The Rainy Day Fund isn’t a trust that generates revenue for something; unless the Lege explicitly authorizes it, whatever goes into the Rainy Day Fund stays there. What’s the point of a fund that never gets used? We may as well convert it to cash and stuff it under a mattress. For that matter, we may as well rake it into a pile and make a bonfire. That’s more than we’re getting out of it now.

2. Putting it another way, politicians love to say that taxes are the people’s money. Well, sometimes the people want to spend their money on things they need. You know, like schools and roads and a statewide water plan, that sort of thing. How many schools and roads and reservoirs do you think we’d have now if we’d only spent money based on some arbitrary inflation-plus-population-growth formula over the past hundred years?

3. By signing on to this frivolity, the Greater Houston Partnership has officially declared that it is no longer a voice for reasoned public policy. From this point forward, whenever you see them advocate for something like education reform, you can safely ignore them because they’re not serious about it. Which is a shame, because we need more organizations that take these matters seriously, but that’s the path they’ve chosen.

4. As you might expect, Democrats have been loudly critical of this. My inbox is filled with statements from various legislators – Reps. Jessica Farrar, Garnet Coleman, Mike Villarreal, Sens. Jose Rodriguez, and Kirk Watson, for example. Which is good, and what they should be doing, but let’s be honest: Barring an even greater wave than what we saw in 2010, the fate of this piece of fluff is up to the Republicans. There are a number of incumbent Republicans who have carried a pro-public education banner in the past, and a number of Republican challengers who are running as the pro-public education alternative. As with the GHP, if any of these candidates sign on to this pledge, they are declaring that they don’t really mean it. (They can follow this example if they need to.) I sincerely hope that endorsing organizations whose missions are pro-public education realize that, or else we’re going to be right back where we were after the 2013 legislative session.

State of the City 2012

It’s getting better.

Saying Houston has “rounded the corner” on the recession, Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday credited City Hall with providing incentives that businesses used to create or retain 13,000 jobs and invest $1 billion locally during the tough economic times of her first term.

Parker also told the sold-out crowd for her third annual “State of the City” address to expect a bond election on the November ballot.

Afterward, the mayor would not say how much borrowing she will ask voters to approve or offer many specifics about what it would be spent on, other than to mention a plan to “string the beads” of the city’s park system by connecting them with bike paths and green corridors.

The last city bond election was in 2006, when voters authorized $625 million in borrowing to finance work on streets, drainage, parks, libraries and public safety. She said this year’s election will not require a tax increase.

Parker also announced that she expects this year’s budget to be flat, as opposed to the $100 million shortfall she and City Council had to close last year. She also said she will not have to lay off or furlough any workers this year. She issued pink slips to 764 employees last year.

The mayor contrasted this year’s optimism with her previous addresses in which she said she “tried to deliver bad news in the best way possible.”

The full text as prepared for the State of the City 2012 is here, and you can compare it to the addresses of 2010 and 2011. I did not see a specific mention of the budget being flat, but Mayor Parker did say that unlike last year, “the budget I will send to City Council next month will not include cuts in swimming pool and library hours, health care services, furloughs or layoffs”, so that’s good news. The main thing beside that from the speech that caught my eye was this:

Infrastructure
We are transforming the way we do long-term planning for infrastructure improvements – planning ten years down the road instead of just five. For the first time we have a comprehensive analysis of the condition of every mile of city streets and a watershed level drainage assessment. We have a plan to address them in a systematic, worst-comes-first, pay-as-you-go manner.

The work has already started. This year the City will start almost 30 new projects for street and drainage improvements with a value of approximately $250 million. A major storm sewer and road project on Aldine Westfield from Tidwell to West Little York and drainage improvements in the Brays Village area are examples of the projects already underway.

Voter approval of Rebuild Houston was a visionary step that will reap benefits for our neighborhoods for years to come. It was the right thing, the prudent thing, a faith-in-our-future thing to do, and I defy you to name another city in America that would have made this bold step in the midst of a recession.

After all the false starts and missteps with the determination of what the drainage fee would be, the best way to turn that around is to show results. This is the first public mention I can recall of active Rebuild Houston projects. I hope to hear more this year. People like seeing roads get fixed. It’s tangible, and it’s the sort of thing that just about everybody agrees should be done. Let’s not let this go under the radar. Stace and Nancy Sims have more.

The Sheriff’s office is hiring

Good.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia says by balancing his department’s $392 million budget, he’ll be able to transfer 100 deputies from jail duties to crime-fighting jobs in the next year while hiring hundreds of new civilian jailers.

During a news conference Monday, Garcia said when he took office in January 2009 the department was spending $56 million more a year than approved by Commissioners Court. When the budget year ended Feb. 29, the department spent $2.8 million less than was budgeted.

“The budget was out of control,” Garcia said. “I brought in executives from the business world and told them it was irresponsible to allow this to happen. I challenged them to fix it, and they did.”

Garcia said the savings will allow him to begin filling 240 vacancies in the jail with civilian jailers. He said in the next 12 months they will transfer 100 deputies ­- 60 to patrol and 40 to investigations and court protection – now assigned to jail duties.

[…]

A countywide hiring freeze that began in October 2009 – now lifted – was among factors forcing the county to pay large amounts of mandatory overtime to legally staff the jails. Garcia said jail overtime payments, which reached a high of $40 million a year and totalled $20 million last year, can be cut to $15 million this fiscal year, which began in March 1.

“We’ve already brought overspending under control, now we’re working to put more boots on the ground to keep Harris County safe and to continue to bring crime under control,” Garcia said.

Obviously, the reduction in the inmate population, which recently enabled the county to cease outsourcing them to other jails, has had a big effect on the Sheriff’s ability to balance his budget. There are a number of factors responsible for that – DA Pat Lykos gets some credit, the overall decline in the crime rate gets some – but Sheriff Garcia has implemented some policies to abet that. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of progress being made, which Garcia gets to trumpet and Steve Radack gets to whine about. Gotta love that. A copy of the Sheriff’s press release is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

Early Childhood Intervention

When we say that the budget was balanced on the backs of children and the poor, this is the sort of thing we’re talking about.

Lawmakers last year slashed funding for the statewide [Early Childhood Intervention] program by 14 percent. The reductions come at a time when demand for services is increasing and children’s needs are growing more complex.

Many of the 56 agencies that contract with the state to provide early services are feeling the effects of the changes, which became effective Sept. 1.

The number of clients in MHMR’s program, for example, has dropped from 1,481 in September 2011 to 1,280 in January. At Easter Seals of Greater Houston, enrollment went from 626 in November 2010 to 465 last November.

“It’s a frustrating time,” said Dena Day, ECI program director at Easter Seals. “It’s frustrating when they (staff) go to homes and see babies they know need services and won’t get them.”

ECI targets children ages 6 weeks to 3 years who show signs of developmental delays or have a medical diagnosis, such as autism or Down syndrome. The children receive services in their home, and parents are taught skills to assist with their child’s development.

This is some of the best money we can spend. It has a lifelong effect, and the investment is paid back many times over. Children who get this kind of help are more likely to stay in school – there’s another factor in the graduation rate for you – and thus have better outcomes in life. The jails are full of people with learning disabilities and other problems that could have been addressed when they were little but weren’t. Doing less now to help children who need it will cost us a lot more later. And everyone who voted for that in the Lege – that is to say, every Republican in the Lege – will own that.