Suffer the Little Legislators


Suffer the Little Legislators s we write this, the second special session on school finance of the 79th Legislature is all but over. Like petulant and frightened children, the Lite Gov and the Speaker would prefer to run out the clock, rather than have one or the other blamed for their collective failure. That’s not to say the blame game isn’t in full swing. The governor blames the Legislature. After all, he has to cover his own failures and get reelected. The Senate blames the House. The Speaker faults the school superintendents, who no doubt wish that they had the power he ascribes to them. In reality, the session—as far as reforming school finance is concerned—was over before it began. Only the outsized egos and ambitions of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst prevented everybody from accepting the truth at the outset. This is the fifth time that this particular band of Republicans has failed to pass a school finance plan since they took control in 2003. Why can’t these folks get it together? The answer in one word—priorities. Just look at what they did accomplish during the special. Three big bills that had been hanging around since the end of the regular session made it to the governor’s desk in this second special session; none of them were about the kids. Both chambers passed a bill that would increase judges’ salaries by 23 percent. A state district judge in Texas presently earns $101,700. The Lege just upped that to $125,000. It’s hard to argue that judges who could earn much more in the private sector shouldn’t be better compensated. But in raising the salaries of state judges, legislators also increased their own pensions by an identical percentage. Legislators gave themselves this nice little bump when Texas teachers are among the lowest compensated in the nation. The Lege also passed a bill outlawing local governments from grabbing private property for commercial development. Eminent domain became the right wing’s bugbear after a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s an easy call for legislators since they don’t have to deal directly with the economic development needs of small communities. Exempted, though, was a big-money deal to construct a new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington. Finally, and perhaps most revealing, was the telecommunications bill. If there is one god before whom this Republican majority bows down, it’s campaign contributions. Too bad the school children of Texas—or your average consumer for that matter—don’t have a political action committee. (Irate parents have recently banded together in a political action committee called Texas Parents PAC to push for change in an open acknowledgment of this sad reality.) In 2004 alone, telephone companies spent $1,588,869 in campaign contributions in Texas, according to Texans for Public Justice. By the end of the regular session, SBC had an army of 123 lobbyists—reporting up to $6.8 million in fees—pushing telecom deregulation at the Lege. Together, SBC and Verizon lobbyists outnumbered the 150-member Texas House. All this money was well spent. The bill opened up the video business to telephone companies while locking cable companies into existing local franchise deals with cities. Basic phone service was also deregulated, so expect your bill to go up. No longer will telecom providers be forced to service less profitable poor parts of town for cable or the Internet. The telecom bill is expected to earn billions for SBC and Verizon. And what about the school kids of Texas? Well, they’ll have to wait for another special session, perhaps this fall or next spring. It seems to us the folks in suits at the Capitol are actually the children in need of educating.