Molly Ivins

Send 'Em Back to School

If the unofficial motto of the 76th session is Let’s Not Embarrass the Governor, we’re not doing real well here. The Gang That Couldn’t Legislate Straight fell to and fouled up the governor’s tax plan this month – and that was just the Republicans.

The plan to make a few selected cuts in the sales tax – diapers, school supplies, over-the-counter meds – sort of got away from everybody, and what was supposed to be a $178 million package suddenly more than doubled, to a $450 million package. On the theory that any tax cut is a good tax cut, House Republicans decided to exempt “small businesses” from the franchise tax if their annual gross revenue is a mere $250,000 – rather a jump from a previous proposal of $100,000.

In the excitement of exempting this, that, and the other, in no coherent pattern, the Rs thereby put a serious dent in the monies available for the Governor’s cherished $2 billion property-tax cut. The Republican-controlled Senate has passed a $1.1 billion property-tax relief bill, and the House was considering a $480 million plan – until the Republicans spent a bunch of it on other tax cuts previously uncontemplated. Representative Kenny Marchant, chairman of the House Republican caucus, said any tax cut is a good tax cut, and he doesn’t think they jeopardized the Governor’s plan at all. Okay.

The trouble with the Guv’s plan is that the numbers never did add up, from the beginning. Unless he’s willing to take it all away from the schools – and he keeps saying education is his most important priority – a big cut is not there. The latest word is that Bush is threatening to call a special session if he doesn’t get his $2 billion property-tax cut.

Part of the problem is our school finance system – the one we so notably failed to reform last session. If you try raising teacher pay statewide, in some cases you end up increasing the inequities in per-pupil funding, once more triggering the involvement of the federal courts, on the grounds that the whole system is so grossly unfair that it’s unconstitutional. Texas doesn’t even have fully funded kindergarten yet, not to mention a few other needs, like repairing buildings that are falling apart, making classes smaller, equalizing the fiscal gaps between districts and, oh yes, paying teachers more.

Chapter XI of the House Appropriations Bill is where items “considered to be desirable and necessary, but not budgeted elsewhere in this Act” get put. Both education and health and human services are in this category. The total in Chapter XI for the next biennium is $6.8 billion. Education funding is short $2.97 billion; health and human services $2.72 billion short – out of a theoretical “surplus” of $5.6 billion, of which Bush wants a $2 billion tax cut. You figure it out. Also on the “wish list” in Chapter XI is protection of natural resources – $212.5 million short.

Texas is last – fiftieth – the absolute dead last of all states, in per capita government spending. You want low taxes, low services? We’ve got the lowest services there are. There is nowhere with lower per-head spending than our state, and yet the Governor’s highest priority is a tax cut. We’re thirty-eighth in teacher salaries, forty-seventh in spending on social services, and forty-ninth in spending on environmental protection.

Just consider the pathetic matter of funding a full day of kindergarten for Texas kids – it would cost about $165 million a year, which truly is peanuts. Think about everything you know about how important it is for kids to get ready to read, why Head Start works so well, all the research showing the importance of early childhood development. Does anyone ever ask what the cost of not having kindergarten is to our kids?

In a discouraging session, perhaps the lowest point was the hearing on Senator Rodney Ellis’ bill to exempt the mentally retarded (I.Q. under 65) from execution. Try to think of some arguments for executing the mentally retarded.Our old friend Representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, she of the legislative terror tactics, argued against a resolution simply noting that 1.5 million Texas children do not have health insurance. She said we cannot assume that children are poor just because they have no health insurance: “Their parents might be making $10,000 a year. Or they might be making $1 million a year. It is still our right in this country not to have health insurance.” So there.Special credit goes to the nine Republican House members who not only voted for the James Byrd Jr. hate-crimes bill, but also helped make the debate on it one of the few impressive moments of the session. The bill finally died, reportedly because Bush didn’t want to sign it or veto it – because it includes protections for homosexuals, which angers the religious right.

His sound bite on the subject is: “All crimes are hate crimes.” Forgery? Embezzlement? Armed robbery? Prostitution? Oh, well.

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected]

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Published at 12:00 am CST