Analysis: Texas legislators had a successful session, but not a historic one
Lawmakers delivered on their promises of school finance and property tax reforms, agreeing to spend $11.6 billion on a combination of education changes and tax cuts. It's big, but is it really "transformative"?
Texas Legislature 2019
The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.More in this series
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The buzzword state leaders attached to their school finance and property tax package — “transformative” — is more aspiration than information.
They’re hoping you’ll think highly of the legislation and that you’ll think highly of them for their work on it. But this one is going to have a hard time living up to the hype.
That’s not a crack about what lawmakers are trying to do in the deal they announced with a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion. It’s about whether they did something that will actually change the schools, or ease Texans’ ill will about property taxes, or both.
Is the product better? Is the pricing better? What did we really get?
Look at the results without consideration for the potential points of drama, like the winners and losers on the particulars of the legislation, who got along and who didn’t play nice, what factors deadlines played, and whose political star is brighter or dimmer than it was a couple of days ago.
Look at it without the personalities attached. The $11.6 billion legislation does some big things, particularly if you use dollar signs in your definition of big things:
- Cuts property tax rates
- Increases spending on pre-kindergarten
- Cuts reliance on “Robin Hood” payments from wealthier to poorer school districts
- Puts more state money into education generally, and specifically into the education of low-income kids
- Gives teachers raises in both pay and benefits — some more than others
- Increases the state’s share of public education costs.
But each of those bullets has a counterpoint.
- Are the property tax cuts big enough to provide real relief — and if so, will that relief last more than one or two years?
- The pre-K spending isn’t universal.
- Despite cutting 47% of Robin Hood, it leaves much of it still in place.
- The state isn’t obligated to keep up its new funding levels for schools in perpetuity, any more than it was when it cut public education dramatically in 2011.
- The teacher pay raises fall short of the widely touted Senate promise of $5,000 per teacher and librarian.
- The state’s share would still fall well short of paying for half the cost of public education in Texas.
State leaders celebrated making a deal on a tough piece of legislation. That’s great, like a banker and a developer having a party when they figure out how to finance and build a building. It was hard, but they wrote their chapter of Art of the Deal. The measure of their work, however, will come from the people who live or work in that building. Most of the time, most of the people affected don’t even know the names of the folks who were at the celebration. Their interest is simple: In the scheme of things, was the building an improvement?
Right now, the spending and the legal changes in the school finance and property tax package are worth a bottle of champagne or two; it really is difficult to find a trail through the dense thicket of politics and policy around these subjects.
But will the changes and the $11.6 billion be “transformative,” and will they be sustainable in future state budgets? Are Texas lawmakers actually putting a new and improved school system in place? A fairer property tax? A lower property tax?
Maybe it will turn out that they really have transformed this essential and expensive area of state government, and quelled rising voter concern about high property taxes in Texas.
Or — and honestly, this is usually the result in matters of public education and taxes — they just fixed it for a little while.
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