This year, as we start a new legislative session, we are hearing a lot of bipartisan talk and feeling a new sense of working together. Headlines are hitting the newspapers about billions being put into public education, $5,000 raises for teachers, and that we are going to “fix” school finance once and for all. There are also promises of lowering all of our taxes, improving health care, taking care of retired teachers, and improving safety in our state. On the surface, most people are really excited about this new focus on getting things done.
I am going to remain optimistic that the November elections sent a clear message to our politicians that Texans are tired of the hateful rhetoric coming from our leaders without getting anything done. The last legislative session was held hostage by our Lieutenant Governor and in November, he nearly lost his post to a Democrat he outspent by millions. Several very vocal radicals were defeated in the Senate and House, and I think the message was clear that Texas supports, and will vote for, a shift back to common sense. Here are the things I am concerned about and I would urge you to consider.
First, it is impossible to give every department more money, raise salaries, shore up pension funds, increase the allotment for public education, and along with that, give us all a tax cut. I’m not a math major, but that is impossible. Without raising revenue, these headlines are all just going to go down as another session of broken promises. So, pay attention to the revenue side of these issues as the session moves forward. My prediction is that no one will get a tax cut, and at some point our legislators are going to have to take some tough votes on the above-mentioned promises they made. They cannot possibly do everything they have said they will do without making major changes to bring in additional revenue.
Everyone I know thinks teachers should make more money. However, a one-time infusion of $5,000 and forcing every school district to give this raise is disastrous. What happens three years from now when the state no longer provides that funding? I can tell you what happens: local school boards and administrators are forced to make cuts to continue funding these raises that the state demanded. Can you say unfunded mandate? This is why local control is so important. The state should increase the basic allotment for education and allow local elected officials some discretion in how their money is spent. A demand from the state is not the way to go.
I could go on and on about every one of these issues, but the last one I want to mention is the 2.5% cap on property taxes. Again, this is disastrous. The leadership in our state has decided that they know more than our locally elected officials and they know what is best for every unique community in our state. This cap will handcuff city and county officials, and many communities will be forced to cut public safety, roads, etc., in order to make local budgets work. I don’t think this is what our citizens want. On a side note, in the past, when citizens have come to me to complain about their taxes or their appraised value going up, I always ask them this question: “If I write you a check right now for the appraised value of your house, will you take it?” I can only think of one time when the person said yes. Ninety-nine percent of the time, our homes are appraised at less than what we would sell them for. So, I think all the talk about excessive tax appraisals is not consistent with what I have seen in the communities where I have lived and worked.
You will hear that Texas has one of the highest property tax rates in the country. This is correct. We are 6th or 7th in the country for highest property taxes. However, the rest of the story is that when you consider that we do not have a state income tax, Texans are some of the lowest taxed citizens in the country. The last list I saw had Texas at about 43rd of the lowest taxed states.
So, as you watch the session unfold, keep your eye on revenue, tax changes that would handcuff local elected officials, and the dreaded unfunded mandates. I have a feeling the kumbaya moment we are having now will have some real challenges in the months ahead. After the pomp and circumstance is finally over and our legislators actually get to work, the devil will be in the details...
Click above for legislative updates through The Texas Tribune
As we end 2018, I have a few observations as we look to the New Year.
We apparently have a new Speaker of the House in Rep. Dennis Bonnen. So far, the talk from all factions is positive about Rep. Bonnen, so we will see how he tries to do a very difficult job of making everyone happy when the new legislative session is underway. He certainly faces some challenges, as he has a history of standing up in the House to speak out about Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s extremist views. Now that he is part of the 3-headed leadership in Texas (Gov., Lt. Gov., Speaker of the House) it will be interesting to watch that dynamic play out.
The “School Finance Commission” wrapped up its work recently. As I said all along, this entire process was just a way to “kick the can down the road” to avoid doing something with school finance in the last session. Now, after a full two years of meetings, bringing in many “experts” and hearing all sides of the issue, the final report was a disappointment, but not unexpected. The two State Representatives on the committee even refused to sign it, because it did not call for the need for any new money flowing to education. Click below for a summary of the report from the Texas Tribune.
This commission was a clear case of “stack the deck” to get the results you want. The commission was filled with people who had their mind made up that no new money would help schools, schools are wasting the money they have, and what we really need are more tax cuts. This tired argument has been going on for years and it is this thinking why nothing meaningful is ever accomplished as it relates to school finance. There were some pro-education members appointed to the commission to show that “school people” were included, but in the end they were outnumbered by those whose minds were already made up long before the two-year process started. Good luck to Speaker Bonnen in helping to make meaningful changes to school finance. He has a tough road ahead.
Finally, each year as we broke for the Christmas break, I always reminded my staff of a few things. First, enjoy your break, recharge your batteries, and spend as much relaxation and fun time with your family and friends as you can. After a hard Fall semester, this break is much needed and much deserved!
I also reminded them, that although they would never admit it, there was a certain percentage of students in their classroom who could not wait for the Spring semester to begin. The classroom is a safe haven for many of our students. They feel safe, they are warm and well-fed, and they know they are loved by the staff of people at their local school. Not all students get this at home, and the school is where they literally find peace and comfort. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season, and I am excited to see what 2019 will bring!
If you want to stay connected, you can find me at www.largentconsulting.org, where you can also find my blog and podcast or click the subscribe button below. Follow me on twitter @DrJimLargent and Facebook at Largent Consulting LLC.
If you are active on social media, once you get beyond the pictures of people’s meals, kids, and vacations, the next most common topic seems to be politics. No matter what political persuasion you purport yourself to be, you can find plenty of red meat on news or social media sites--some factual information, but mostly a collection of doctored photos, manipulated “facts” or outright lies.
If you are a far-right conservative, you can find plenty of sources to fuel your beliefs that “liberal” and “progressive” are curse words and the Democrats are a collection of Christian-hating tree huggers, who want handouts from those with money, so they can live a life of luxury without having to work.
If you are a left-wing liberal, you can find different sites and outlets that will have you believe that all Republicans are racist hate mongers who hate anyone who does not look, act, and worship exactly like them.
Unfortunately, the ugly truth is that there are radical extremists on both ends of the political spectrum who believe exactly what I have described. We witness this daily on biased news outlets and on social media, and I believe this extreme, hateful, partisanship we are living in now is destructive to our state and our nation.
In my opinion, we are in a dangerous place, where politics has become a religion for many of our citizens. We are at a point in our society that being seen with, or (God-forbid) agreeing with, an idea from somebody on the “other side” will create an uproar and cause you to be labeled a traitor and not a “true” Republican or Democrat. I speak this truth from experience, as I have actually been in the arena.
The real problem in Texas is that we are a non-voting state. Less than 20% of registered voters actually vote in primaries, and that number only goes up slightly in presidential elections. So, we are essentially electing people with votes from the extreme ends of each party, while 80% of people in the middle choose to not participate. I believe their absence at the polls is why we have such a partisan and divided country.
It is vitally important that all Texans and all Americans vote based on the merits of the candidates and not just whether they have an R or a D behind their name. I would urge all of you to research the candidates using factual information, an incumbents actual voting record or record of accomplishments, and what groups support and most importantly, fund them. Follow the money. Once you do that, the choice is normally very clear on who is the best person for the job in which they seek. As for me, I will be voting for the person and not a party!