Monthly Archives: November 2011

Shoving the wagon over school children

The Texas Legislature misses a lot of opportunities – usually intentionally – and it looks like it may be getting ready to miss another one.

A Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week gives the Legislature a prime opportunity to begin fashioning a revenue system to more adequately meet the state’s 21st century needs, including enhanced educational opportunities for our children. But, as the story linked below indicates, that is not the priority of the current legislative majority.

The same legislators who only recently slashed $5.4 billion from public school funding now apparently want to just tinker with, rather than truly reform, the state’s new business franchise tax, following a Supreme Court decision that the tax is constitutional.

The tax, which Gov. Rick Perry convinced the Legislature to enact in 2006 when lawmakers ordered deep cuts in school property taxes, has been underperforming from Day One. Part of that was by design. The governor and the legislative majority wanted to claim credit for “tax cuts” in an election year, so they intentionally created a new tax that would not raise as much new state revenue as the schools lost in the local tax cuts. The recession also took a toll on franchise tax receipts to the point that the “structural deficit” in the school finance budget (about $10 billion this biennium) accounted for more than onethird of the $27 billion revenue shortfall that lawmakers confronted last January.

We already know that they bridged that canyon with budget cuts, even while leaving at least $6.5 billion unspent in the Rainy Day Fund.

Now, with uncertainty over the franchise tax’s constitutionality cleared up, legislators have a chance to overhaul the tax so that its revenue can grow with the economy. Such reform, however, would most likely require some businesses to pay more, and many business people don’t want to, even though they give a lot of lip service to how important a quality educational system is to the state’s future.

“We’re pulling the wagon,” said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, claiming that Texas businesses already pay 60 percent of all state and local taxes.

According to the state comptroller’s Tax Exemptions/Incidence report, businesses initially will pay an estimated 51 percent of most state and local taxes in 2013, with individual consumers paying 49 percent. After businesses pass on those taxes in the form of higher prices for their products and services, Texas consumers will end up paying 77 percent of the ultimate tax load, the report estimates.

Businesses are pulling the wagon?

In reality, every time the business lobby blocks an opportunity to improve the state’s tax structure, it is shoving the wagon – right over the school children of Texas.

Thanksgiving is for teachers, too

It has been a rough year to be a public school teacher, the roughest in recent memory. Gov. Rick Perry joined governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states in declaring war on the profession, costing thousands of teachers their jobs, increasing class sizes for others and undermining the strength of the public school system, the foundation of our future.

Wouldbe education “reformers” – some wellintended, but others simply trying to turn our schools into profit centers for their own entrepreneurial schemes – remain busy promoting charters, vouchers, virtual schools and other alleged “miracle” solutions. Those ideas may benefit a handful of students, while robbing our traditional public schools of the tax dollars they need to provide an equitable and adequate education to the vast majority of our children.

While antieducation governors pander to ideologues, while “reformers” scheme and while selfstyled “experts” try to tell us what is wrong with our public schools, the real education experts – our public school teachers are doing what really matters. And, they are doing it very well, under increasingly difficult circumstances. They are in the classroom every school day, teaching our young people how to learn.

According to one estimate, there are 12,000 fewer teachers in Texas classrooms now than there were a year ago, victims of a governor and a legislative majority who slashed $5.4 billion from school budgets. This time next year, there will be fewer still, and many teachers who keep their jobs may see their pay cut and their class sizes continue to grow. But their dedication to their profession and their students remains strong, and their importance to their students’ futures is more vital than ever.

Thanksgiving is a good time to remember to be thankful for our public school teachers. And, this year, they have earned an extra dose of gratitude – from people who really mean it.

Pizza is still a “vegetable.” No kidding

As you may have heard by now, pizza’s starring role as a “vegetable” on school lunch menus has been reaffirmed by the United States Congress, an institution that may not know beans about nutrition but certainly knows a lot about the care and feeding of the frozen food industry.

In a move undermining efforts to fight childhood obesity and contradicting a child nutrition law enacted only last year, the U.S. House has voted to preserve the status of pizza as a “vegetable” and scuttle an effort to limit how often French fries can be served in school lunchrooms.

Why? Because pizza and French fries are among the most commonly consumed foods by participants in the national school lunch program, an $18 billion source of income for the frozen food industry. So, the industry successfully lobbied Congress to force a rewrite of Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules that would have threatened the lunchroom reign of the two big moneymakers.

“Our concern is that the (USDA) standards would force companies in many respects to change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students,” said an industry spokesman, quoted in the Reuters story linked below.

Indeed. Let young waistlines continue to grow while the bottom line for education entrepreneurs gets healthier.

School meals subsidized by the federal government have to include a certain amount of vegetables, and, silly as it may sound, pizza has been classified as a “vegetable” based on the amount of tomato paste it includes. (Years ago, you may remember, the Reagan administration tried to classify ketchup as a “vegetable.”) USDA wanted to change the rules on tomato paste. The change would have required pizza to have a least a halfcup of tomato paste to quality as a “vegetable” serving. Current rules, which now likely will remain in place, require just two tablespoons of tomato paste for pizza to be a “vegetable.”

You could say the tomato lobby just got pasted.

Schools and teachers can still use the money

I don’t know if state Comptroller Susan Combs was fascinated with fast cars or fascinated with fasttalking rich guys seeking a big taxpayer handout to get richer. But not too long ago, she seemed more than eager to commit $25 million a year for the next 10 years in tax funds to subsidize a Formula One racing venture scheduled for Austin.

You may recall the “welfare for the wealthy” deal attracted national media attention last spring when the Legislature was slashing funding for education and health care. It was pointed out then that adding the $25 million to the state budget instead would have paid the salaries of about 500 teachers at a time when several thousand teachers were getting laid off.

The racing promoters, of course, were promising a lot of pie in the sky, a huge economic windfall for Austin and for Texas when racing fans arrived from everywhere to shower the capital city with heavy consumer spending. Construction started on a racetrack outside Austin, and the countdown began to the big racing day, initially scheduled for next summer. The theory was that the annual $25 million gift from the state’s Major Events Trust Fund would more than be repaid by all the economic activity the race would generate. The biggest beneficiaries, though, would be the wealthy racing investors.

Following a recent spate of problems, racing promoters slammed on the brakes this week, and Combs was frantically trying to find reverse. As reported in the Austin AmericanStatesman article linked below, key investors announced they were immediately suspending construction of the racetrack – apparently throwing 300 construction workers out of jobs – and Combs issued a long, written statement trying to distance herself from the project.

She said no state money had yet been paid to the investors and said no payment would be made until after the initial, delayed race – now scheduled for next November – is held. According to the AmericanStatesman, the initial payment of $25 million had been anticipated before the race.

Among other problems, the local investors have not yet obtained the necessary Formula One racing rights from the promoter. And, according to a report last week by the Bloomberg news service, Formula One’s CEO has been embroiled in bribery allegations in a legal proceeding in Europe.

Wealthy San Antonio businessman Red McCombs, one of the big local investors in the racing venture, also has been an investor in Combs political future. In several contributions in recent years, he had given $13,500 to Combs’ political operation, a rather modest amount from someone of McCombs’ wealth. This past June, however, he became more generous. He gave Combs a $25,000 donation.

Meanwhile, more teacher layoffs are likely next year.