Rearranging the same ol’ chairs

There is one thing you can almost always count on from most state legislators. They know how to throw out a good cliché, as Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro did yesterday during the umpteenth round of legislative handwringing over how to pay for the public schools.

“Rather than rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, which we have been doing all these years, why don’t we take them off the deck and look at things from a completely different perspective?” she told a special legislative committee on school finance, according to a report in The Dallas Morning News.

Shapiro, RPlano, apparently meant that the Legislature needs to find a better way to fund public education. We’ve heard that many times before, but with a revenue shortfall projected between $11 billion and $15 billion for next year’s legislative session, she also acknowledged a major part of the problem “There is no money.”

Sen. Dan Patrick, RHouston, quickly announced – also for the umpteenth time – that he wants to “fix” local property taxes, a major source of school funding. Property taxes are an easy political target, but the cuts that the Legislature ordered in those local taxes four years ago have heightened the school funding problem, and whatever savings that homeowners realized then have since been mostly eroded.

There are funding options out there, but there is little will among the current state leadership to tap into them to overhaul the school finance system, even as Texas continues to lag behind most other states in perpupil funding for instruction and inequities among school districts worsen.

State leaders are solidly against a personal income tax. And even if they weren’t, voters – who would have the final say over that option – likely would reject it. A legislative committee will look at closing some sales tax exemptions, but many of those are very popular and won’t be repealed easily.Lawmakers aren’t likely to expand the new business tax either. In fact, they increased the exemptions to the business tax only last year, even though it falls about $9 billion short each biennium of covering the revenue losses from the 2006 property tax cuts.

Despite a widespread public misperception, the lottery contributes only a very small percentage of the education budget, and that amount is offset by general revenue anyway. Expanded gambling in Texas, meanwhile, remains a pieinthesky proposition.

There will be no significant boost in education funding without a new revenue stream. Without new revenue, lawmakers are likely to tinker with things like class sizes and administrative overhead but avoid a real fix. They will keep using the same wornout chairs – until another lawsuit is filed and another court order puts the state back under the gun.

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