This newspaper has little good to say of Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Joe Straus and the Texas Legislature. So it’s not entirely surprising the House decision to adjourn the special session a day early this week may yield more benefits than even the biggest government skeptic might expect.
In closing down the store early, House leadership left the Senate’s farce of a bill reforming city and county property taxes high and dry. And possibly by serendipity, that might work hand-in-glove with one of the few decent initiatives of the special session. This forms a commission to study and recommend major reform of the state’s badly flawed system of funding our public schools.
This could benefit all in the long run. It gives earnest legislators more time to seriously study two exceedingly complicated issues that are interwoven. It also gives educators, taxpayers, city council members, school board members, parents and appraisal officials more time to push practical ideas for reform and press lawmakers for real accountability ahead of the 2018 election.
Some legislators have been pushing hard to further tighten revenue growth raised through property taxes by cities and counties beyond what’s already prescribed by state law. That sounds terrific except that cities and counties insist with justification that lawmakers are vilifying them for political gain when, in fact, school property taxes are what appear out of whack on local tax bills.
And one reason school property taxes are so out of whack is that state legislators themselves have gradually (and quietly) shirked their state constitutional obligation to properly fund public schools, leaving more and more of the burden to school districts. And when school districts then hike property taxes to compensate, angry taxpayers vent their wrath locally, not at Austin where it belongs.
Figure into all this the fact the Texas Supreme Court has correctly branded our state’s school finance system a shambles. Justice Don Willett, the jurist famously on President Trump’s list of U.S. Supreme Court prospects, called our state’s system for funding schools “undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement.” We concur, adding only that it has been wildly inequitable from one school district to the next.
In the Texas House, some lawmakers have had stunningly frank talks about how to reform school property taxes, up to and including scrapping them and hiking sales taxes to levels ranging from 14 to 20 percent. Someone even mentioned the profane words “state income taxes.” And whatever argument can be made for school vouchers, many correctly believe the topic should be shelved, at least till public school funding is adequately fixed.
This all suggests a grand opportunity for state leaders, particularly given that Abbott, Patrick and Straus have fallen far short of the standard set by Mark White, the former governor who died this month. Now’s the time to reconsider the broader picture, solicit the input of experts and stakeholders and overhaul both property taxes and school finance in a lasting way. Is anyone up to the challenge?