The House’s chief budget writer on Thursday praised a proposal to overhaul the school finance system by grouping the state’s 1,026 regular school districts into a few "school finance districts" — a tax move aimed at equalizing per-student funding statewide.
In a conversation with Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said he looked forward to the Legislature discussing a bill filed by Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, to create at least 30 "school finance districts," with the goal of providing per-student funding that is within $30o of the statewide average. The model could put an end to the decades-long routine of school finance lawsuits over unequal funding, Otto said.
“I’m tired of being sued,” Otto said. “It’s a cottage industry.”
More than 600 Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state's school finance system after lawmakers slashed more than $5 billion from the public education budget in 2011. A Travis County district judge ruled in their favor in August — saying the way the state distributes money to districts is unconstitutional because it is both inadequate and unequal. The state has appealed the lawsuit to the Texas Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case this year.
Otto said the school finance issue has become increasingly difficult to address in the Legislature. He said the key to making Aycock’s proposal work would be structuring it in a way that a court wouldn’t view it as a statewide property tax, which is banned by the Texas Constitution.
Also on Thursday, Otto predicted that any school vouchers measure would fail in the House as it has in past sessions, despite a strong push for it in the Senate.
On border funding, Otto echoed House Speaker Joe Straus' recent comments questioning the wisdom of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s call for $12 million to maintain a National Guard presence on the border. Otto said he supports putting more technology on the border.
“What makes more sense, 40 observation posts or 4,000 cameras at a less cost?" Otto asked. "I just think a smarter way to do it is to get those cameras deployed as much as possible."
Like Straus, Otto said the decision on how to move forward on the issue would be up to Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Till I hear that Gov. Abbott wants to extend the stay, I think we need to be looking at how to deploy border security without the guard," Otto said.
On another hot-button issue, repealing the state’s in-state tuition policy for undocumented students, Otto sounded supportive of efforts by Patrick and others to repeal it, arguing that it creates an incentive for more people to come into the state illegally.
"We need to cut off the incentive,” Otto said, though he said he was open to “grandfathering” some who may be currently eligible for the program.
On spending, Otto said he has interest this session in seeing the House put forward property tax and business tax cuts as well as paying down more of the state’s debt. At the same time, he expressed concern that lawmakers were setting themselves up for a situation similar to 2006, when the Legislature approved property tax cuts that were quickly obscured by increasing property values.
“What is the taxpayer going to actually realize and actually see?” Otto said.
Full video of today's conversation:
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that a proposal to change the public education funding system would group school districts into "school finance districts."