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May 31, 2005

Editorial Boards Across the State Hammer the Lege

By Byron LaMasters

Since I enjoyed adding my snarky asides in compiling the news reports about the end of the "Do Nothing" Texas legislature below, let's take a look at what the newspaper editorial boards had to say:

I'll start with my favorite newspaper in the state, the conservative Dallas Morning News:

Lackluster Finish: Legislature didn't come close on school finance

By now, you probably know that the Texas Legislature wrapped up its 2005 session without finding a solution to the state's school funding crisis. But the reality was that the debate over the school-funding bill was meaningless weeks ago. Neither the House nor the Senate ever came close to putting enough funds into Texas schools. And it's best now that the Texas Supreme Court take over this matter. It's clear the Legislature doesn't want to handle it well.

From the beginning of the session, most of the Republicans who run Austin did not want to raise the taxes necessary to adequately fund schools. They instead took care of their party's base, which doesn't look kindly on any kind of tax hike.

Republicans attended to their base throughout this session. They hupped-to on issues that matter to cultural conservatives, like banning gay marriage. Cultural conservatives and anti-tax folks vote, so party leaders weren't going to disappoint either.

On the harder task of making government work, legislators struggled. Protecting children and the elderly. Managing water resources and combating pollution. Reauthorizing state agencies. Opening government to the public. Overhauling the workers' compensation system. They were all battle zones until the end. The session boasted only a few pieces of major legislation that moved through with some measure of consensus – for example, the state budget and laws governing asbestos suits.

The DMN states the obvious. Republicans are great when they can hyperventilate about taxes, and throw red meat to their base when they are in the minority. When they actually have to govern, Republicans are immediately torn. Do they continue to cater to their base? Or do they actually solve the state's problems? Republicans in the Texas lege clearly took the former (although the budget was a 19% increase from 2003). Most interestingly, the DMN calls for the Texas Supreme Court to take over the matter. Apparently, they feel that the GOP-legislature is so inept and incompetent that the only solution is judicial activism. Wow.

The San Antonio Express-News has similar thoughts:

Editorial: Lawmakers once again let down schoolchildren

Texas lawmakers once again have failed the state's children miserably because they couldn't reach an agreement on overhauling the school finance system.

As legislative leaders declared that efforts to increase public school funding and revamp the system were dead, the blame game was under way in the Capitol at NASCAR speeds.

Regardless of who is to blame, the bottom line is that the Legislature failed in the midst of a crisis.

A district court judge has ruled that the system of public school finance is unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court is scheduled to review the case in July.

Many school districts are slashing budgets because they already have reached local property tax caps and state funding is not keeping up with growth and inflation.

After lawmakers failed in a 2004 special session on school finance, Gov. Rick Perry declared the issue an emergency during this year's regular session.

In the late hours of the session, Perry and Senate negotiators believed they had an agreement with House leaders, but Speaker Tom Craddick rejected the deal. House members blamed the Senate for acting too slowly.

Barring a successful special session, Texas students will lack adequate support for another school year because of lawmakers' embarrassing failure. Voters should keep that in mind next year.

The Austin American Statesmen:

[A] lesson from this session: Never mind bipartisanship. The Republicans can't even manage a partnership with one another.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, proved again that he is not a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy. He has achieved a reputation as the toughest negotiator in state government. But that's misleading, because negotiators, by definition, compromise to get things done. Craddick, a 36-year veteran of the House, doesn't necessarily want government to get things done.

Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, both Republicans, proved they have little influence over Craddick. In last-minute talks, House negotiators apparently agreed to a compromise on school finance legislation. But Craddick rejected it, and the plan died.

My favorite editorial? The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I normally do not post full-length articles, but this editorial deserves to be read in its entirety. Enjoy:

Give 'em an F

When the going got tough this year on the all-important issue of school finance, the Texas Legislature and its leaders couldn't produce what was asked of them.

No excuses, no amount of "we gave it our best" or "this is a very difficult thing to do" will change that.

All of these people, from Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick on down, were elected and sent to Austin with one of their principle assignments being to fix the school funding system.

They failed.

Equally, no amount of casting blame will change this discouraging reality.

But something has to change, because the way that Texas pays for public schools does not meet the needs of its children today and will be disastrously insufficient to educate the increasingly diverse and more difficult to teach children of tomorrow.

The Legislature has been preparing to confront the school finance problem for at least four years, with interim studies, special committees, expensive scholarly reports, advice from experts and even a 30-day special session last year all leading up to the effort to finally address the problem this year.

As if any more incentive were needed, an Austin judge heard weeks of testimony in a lawsuit brought by school districts and in late November ruled that the current school finance system is inadequate and unconstitutional.

State District Judge John Dietz ordered that the school funding system be shut down if the Legislature couldn't come up with a better plan by October. The Texas Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on an appeal of the case July 6.

What went wrong?

This is Texas, and talking about school funding means talking about taxes. Ideology, greed and ego got in the way.

Ideology transformed the effort to reshape school funding into an attempt to redesign the state's tax structure and reduce local property taxes. That turned an already difficult task into a nearly impossible one.

Still, it could have been done, but these legislators and their leaders couldn't do it.

Greed converted the deliberations into thinly veiled attempts to shuffle more money to specific interest groups or protect the money held by others.

Under Craddick's leadership, the House sought special treatment for wealthy school districts and pushed a regressive sales tax increase in order to preserve tax breaks for some businesses. The Senate under Dewhurst's leadership came up with more equitable plans but was not politically or philosophically crafty enough to handle unbending House negotiators -- or Craddick himself -- when it came time to merge differing proposals.

Ego -- or maybe just the temerity that comes from standing on uncertain political ground with next year's election in sight -- kept Perry from exercising the power of his office to move deliberations to a successful conclusion.

Perry has said that he worked decisively and consistently in the background with key legislative leaders. If so, there is little to show for it.

The education reform and school finance bills that were produced during this legislative session, their high points and their low points, will be and should be dissected and studied by interested parties in the coming weeks and probably will be debated in coming political campaigns.

Perhaps they will serve as starting points in the next effort to resolve this pressing problem.

That's good, but after years of looking to the Legislature for help, Texas public schools and the people who are dedicated to educating the state's children are left with a still-uncertain future.

This Legislature, and these state leaders, could not show results.

Texas cannot, and must not, settle for that.

Posted by Byron LaMasters at May 31, 2005 11:33 AM | TrackBack

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