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by Scott Bennett    Sun, Jan 15, 2006, 06:08 PM

It all began when poor schools, which vote mostly Democratic, sued to equalize education funding. They believed the Texas Constitution mandated equal funding for school districts. The Texas Supreme Court agreed and ordered the legislature to change the state’s education funding mechanism. The then Democratic controlled legislature responded with a plan called “Robin Hood.” This scheme took from rich districts and gave to poor districts and capped what rich districts could spend.

Now a Republican controlled Texas Supreme Court has said that this scheme amounts to an unconstitutional statewide property tax and ordered the now GOP controlled legislature to change it.

All of this gets complicated by the desire of Republicans and some Democrats to offer property tax relief to Texas homeowners. Texas is a very high property tax state and most homeowners want relief. So do many businesses. But cutting one tax requires that the lost revenue be made up from another source. Needless to say those who will pay more don’t like any tax that hits them. Worse, property owners are relatively wealthy and almost any shift in tax burden from them to the general public means increasing the burden on the less well off.

The problem for districts with a low property tax base is that they have to impose a very high tax rate to squeeze out money for education. This usually means that poor people are paying dearly for an inferior education. Understandably they would like to see the state’s broader tax base subsidize their schools.

Rich school districts like that idea too. They would love to get more state dollars. They just want to be able to spend whatever the please on their schools whether their dollars go to Texas-class athletic structures or higher teacher pay. Indeed, much of the extra dollars rich districts spend do in fact go for something other than classroom instruction. After all, a modest tax rate produces a lot of dollars which are relatively easily paid by the well-to-do taxpayers. But when the spend more that creates greater inequality among districts.

There is another complicating factor. The Republicans are in control and they are not generally persuaded that spending more money (after a point) on education really does much to help. They are persuaded that high taxes are bad and that certain types of taxes – say personal income taxes – are really bad.

Many Republicans also like the idea of vouchers. They get big campaign contributions from people who believe that giving state tax dollars to individuals to spend on private school tuition is good. Many minorities agree with this, but many Republican voters don’t. They like their schools and don’t want to see their tax dollars siphoned off to fund private education. Rural Republicans often represent rather poor districts that have no private schools and they don’t like the idea of vouchers either. So you get a lot of people saying vouchers are good in public but privately don’t want the idea to become law.

The so-called “education lobby” believes that money is the answer and they want a good bit more of it for one and all and don’t want vouchers. The education lobby has a lot of political clout even among Republicans. On whole polls indicate that the people of Texas agree with them and want more funding for schools and don’t support vouchers.

So how does the legislature kill Robin Hood, replace a meaningful chunk of the property tax (the leadership thinks this is about a one third reduction; I think it would be more like half to two thirds for the people to care), adequately fund a subjective concept like “adequate”, allow wealthy districts to “enrich” above state minimums all they want, fund vouchers and not impose any new taxes on business or individuals? Answer: they can’t.

The only answer is new and higher taxes. This could be some form of business activity tax which will tax a lot of new business that support Republicans. Or it could be a state personal income tax that Republicans say will never happen on their watch. Or it could be a significant increase in the sales tax that will cut off revenue sources for almost anything else state and local governments want to do.

Republicans say they don’t like judges doing what legislatures should be doing. My guess is that right now there are a lot of GOP legislators reconsidering that idea.

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