Monthly Archives: May 2010

Feeling the pain in a rented mansion

Although it wasn’t a surprise, there was more bad budget news coming out of the state Capitol today. The Big Three – Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus – instructed state agencies to cut another 10 percent from their appropriations requests for the 20122013 state budget, which will be drafted by the Legislature next year. This is on top of reductions averaging about 5 percent, which the same leaders recently ordered in current spending.

This slashing, of course, anticipates a revenue shortfall that has been projected as high as $18 billion when legislators convene in January. The top three state officials, all Republicans, are insistent on bridging the huge gap with budget cuts, not higher taxes, although the state’s existing tax structure is woefully inadequate and already falls short of meeting the legitimate public needs of a growing, urban state.

Before they do anything else, the governor and legislators should first spend all $9.6 billion that is expected to be available in the state’s Rainy Day Fund. This is a savings account, automatically fed by oil and gas severance taxes, which is available for spending on emergencies.

Already, though, there is resistance in Austin to spending the entire fund. The argument, however, makes no sense, except to antigovernment types who want to starve public services, including the public schools. It’s raining, folks. In fact, it’s pouring, and this is the type of budgetary emergency the Rainy Day Fund supposedly was designed to address.

Barring a change of leadership, not only in the governor’s office but also in the Legislature, I am under no illusions that lawmakers will jump at the opportunity to raise state taxes.

But it’s time for leaders who persist in calling for state agencies and everyone else to “tighten their belts” to start practicing what they preach, to start feeling some of the pain themselves. And, I don’t mean trimming employees from their payrolls.

In light of an $18 billion gap, this may be more symbolic than anything else, but Gov. Perry should move out of his $10,000 a month rental mansion in the Austin hills and move into more modest quarters. Or, he should pay his rent and utilities from his political funds. It is twofaced for the governor of Texas to be ordering painful cuts in jobs and services that are crucial to thousands of his constituents and then retreating to the comfort of his taxpayerfinanced villa.

According to a recent Associated Press story, the taxpayers have spent almost $600,000 during the past two years on rent, utilities and upkeep on a 6,386square foot, fivebedroom, sevenbath mansion with a gourmet kitchen and three dining rooms. The taxpayers’ tab has included $8,400 for maintenance on a heated pool, $1,001 in window coverings from Neiman Marcus and a $700 clothes rack.

Additionally, Perry has spent $130,000 from political funds for cable TV, entertainment and other services.

The governor also should close down the Texas Enterprise Fund and arrange with legislative leaders to transfer whatever is left in it into general revenue. And, the Legislature should kill the fund next year.

The fund has distributed more than $300 million to private companies since the Legislature created it, at Perry’s urging, in 2003. The governor’s office says the fund has helped attract more than 50,000 new jobs to Texas. But as the Associated Press recently noted in another story, some companies that received tax dollars are struggling to create all the jobs they promised to create. What’s more, no one knows how many of those companies would have moved to or expanded in Texas, even without the state’s financial incentives.

In any event, that money can be better spent now on public schools, health care or some other critical state need. Maybe it would even save some educators’ or state employees’ jobs.

Here are links to the two AP stories:

A different kind of lesson

According to the Austin Chronicle’s “Naked City” blog, linked below, a group of Austin eighthgraders got more than a lesson in how to rewrite history when they attended a meeting of the State Board of Education last week. They also learned that free speech can be a dicey exercise in the presence of thinskinned adults.

The magnet students from Fulmore Middle School were kicked out of the meeting by SBOE Chairwoman Gail Lowe after they applauded the remarks of state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer. He was one of several legislators urging the board (unsuccessfully) to delay a final vote on its politically altered social studies curriculum standards.

The students, accompanied by parent and former Austin City Council Member Brigid Shea, were on a social studies field trip.

Way to go, Lowe.

Still squeezing the college kids

You may have noticed last week – among the bursts of craziness from the State Board of Education – the news reports that the state’s top three leaders decided against making cuts in already underfunded college financial aid programs. But hold your applause, please, because college students (current and future) and their parents will remain major victims of Texas’ budgetary shortfall.

Unless the tuition deregulation law – which passed the buck for higher education funding from the elected Legislature and governor to unelected university regents is repealed, tuition at state supported universities will continue to rise. Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the law in 2003, wants to keep it. It’s a lot easier (on him and lawmakers) than enacting a strong, dependable revenue source.

Middleclass families will continue to be squeezed because state financial aid is mainly reserved for lowerincome students. But many of them will suffer too because there isn’t enough aid to go around, a longtime problem that Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes discussed in a speech in Irving yesterday.

At present, the state has a firstcome, firstserved approach to distributing aid under the needbased TEXAS Grant program, but that must change, Paredes said. He wants the Legislature to change the rules to give priority to the lowincome applicants with the strongest academic records.

“We want to put these students at the front of the line and say, ‘If you want a TEXAS Grant, work for it,’” he told a group of business and education leaders, as reported in The Dallas Morning News.

Paredes’ proposal isn’t new, but it may receive more attention as legislators struggle with a projected $18 billion revenue shortfall next year.

To receive priority, students would have to graduate from high school with college credit or through the state’s distinguished achievement program. They also would have to meet one of the following criteria: have a “B” average; be deemed collegeready, based on a test; or graduate in the top onethird of their high school class.

More than 69,000 students will receive about $274 million in grants in 2010, with an average award of about $3,900. A family of four has to earn less than $45,000 a year to qualify. Thousands of eligible students aren’t receiving help because the state hasn’t appropriated enough money.

Here is a link to the Dallas News story:

Walks like a voucher…

Voucher advocates – those who would siphon state tax dollars for tuition to be paid to private schools – haven’t made many headlines in Texas in recent years, but they haven’t given up. One of their latest ideas calls for the Legislature to create a franchise tax credit to fund scholarships enabling parents, who are unhappy with their kids’ current public schools, to transfer them to other schools, public or private.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, has an article promoting the idea on its webpage. The article says 10 other states already have similar programs.

As envisioned for Texas, a “tax credit scholarship program” would be funded with donations from businesses. Businesses could make donations directly to any nonprofit, scholarshipgranting organization they chose and receive a credit against the franchise tax. The organizations would then provide scholarships to public school students for private school tuition, transportation costs to attend a different public school or even for home school instruction.

Call it what they want, folks, this is a first cousin (or closer) to a private school voucher program. The franchise tax already falls about $4.5 billion a year short of paying for the school property tax cuts that Gov. Perry and the Legislature ordered in 2006. Lawmakers have no business diverting more money from that already insufficient revenue source to boost the profits of private school owners.

We need to increase resources for the public schools, not steal from them. The public schools – not private schools or home schools – educate the vast majority of Texas’ children, and no voucher program (including one in disguise) is going to change that. Such diversions will only make the jobs of the public schools even more difficult.

Chairman emeritus of the Texas Public Policy Foundation is none other than James Leininger, the wealthy San Antonio businessman who already has spent millions of dollars trying to purchase a voucher friendly state government.

Here is a link to the TPPF article: