Page 9


The Texas Research League Austin Ten years ago, on a cold, dark night, the Observer asked its readers to imagine the political shock if the AFL-CIO were to be found officially advising state agencies, in expensive detail, on how to run their business. The Observer of a decade ago went on to chronicle the adventures of the Texas Research League, a tax-exempt foundation funded by the biggest money in the state, which did the research upon which the Legislature based its decisions about whom to tax and how. Plus ca change, plus c’est le metne. It is 1974 and the best shot we’ve had in a long, long time at reforming the state’s illogical and unjust property taxes now rests in large measure in the hands of the Texas Research League. The board of the Texas Research League is composed of chief executives of the following: utility, bank, oil & gas, insurance, oil & gas, utility, utility, utility, oil & gas, bank, oil & gas, savings & loan, oil & gas, steel, retail business, bank, bank, utility, bank, engineering firm, chemical firm, insurance, cotton, utility, bank, retail, bank, construction company and so forth and so on. It is an honor roll of real biggies, Exxon, Tenneco, Brown & Root the total net worth of the corporations represented by the men on the board of directors of the Texas Research League is astronomical. THE RESEARCH League has just completed a study, a dandy little plan that will likely eventually determine how much you and Exxon pay in property taxes. “I guess like a lot of people around state government, I always assumed the League’s research was biased,” said Tom Zelenka, administrative assistant to Rep. Luther Jones of El Paso, who serves on the Legislative Property Tax Committee. “But I always assumed that their prejudices were subtle, that they had a bunch of very brainy guys over there who slant these things, but they would do it in such a quiet and sophisticated manner that no one would ever notice. But this time they really blew it.” This time the Texas Research League has produced a 49-page study, with appendices, entitled, “Estimating Market Value of Property in Texas School Districts: A Design Plan.” It is not, as the League’s executive director Jim McGrew freely admits, a perfect product. “The limitations of the data which can be produced by the study . . . are obvious and serious,” according to the letter with which McGrew submitted the design for the study to the property tax committee. Zelenka charges, “If the committee uses the League’s idea of a study, there won’t be any property tax reform or any school financing reform. The thing is designed to either produce no information or the wrong kind of information. It would be impossible to redesign the system with the kind of information this study will bring in.” Zelenka’s charge would be hard to prove, but the League’s study design does have some flaws that are visible to the naked eye. Rep. Dan Kubiak of Rockdale, who is chairman of both the House Education Committee and the Constitutional Convention Education Committee, finds the study design seriously delinquent in several basic respects. Craig Foster, a research consultant for the Property Tax Committee, cites more esoteric flaws in the statistical design of the study. Luther Jones finds the thing completely unacceptable. And at least one out-of-state expert to whom the study was sent for review, finds it somewhere between shocking and ridiculous. Dan Morgan, a U.T. economist expert in questions of school financing, agrees with Zelenka’s estimate. How, you may ask, did the property tax committee come to be depending on the Texas Research League to begin with? Why would any representative of the people put his trust in a study done by an outfit that is funded by big business? That is one of the on-going mysteries of Texas government. The Legislature has its own research branch, the Legislative Council, but over the past 20 years the Legislature has depended heavily on the work of the Research League, especially in the area of taxes, the one field in which the League’s conflict of interest is most obvious. The League constantly claims to be “objective.” It allegedly makes no recommendations, merely sets out alternative ways of doing things and estimates their cost. The information it provides is supposed to be “value-free.” If given a specific task, such as how best to determine the market value of real estate in Texas, the League supposedly goes about its purpose taking into consideration only the very best way to get the job done. THE LEAGUE was set up 20 years ago as a public foundation for “scientific and educational purposes.” In those glory days, foundations had to disclose almost nothing about themselves to the I.R.S. in order to get a tax exemption and still less to the public. The Research League’s status was grandfathered into the 1969 reform act that tightened up the operation of foundations. Thus it is not necessary for the League to disclose, and it does not, who contributes to it and how much money is given. One can only assume that the 110 members of the board of directors and/or the corporations they represent contribute to the League. A popular new liberal paranoia around the capitol is League-phobia. It is pointed out that the League is “insinuating” its alumni into state government at all levels. “They train them over there,” said one liberal darkly, “and then send them over here.” And he proceeded to list a slew of former Research Leaguers who are now occupying state government jobs. One has visions of brainwashed zombies, burrowing from the inside. . . . It was not just real difficult for the League to burrow into doing this latest job for the Legislative Property Tax Committee. The LTPC is worth looking at its own self a committee that was obviously designed by a committee. It is composed of two members appointed by the lieutenant governor, two by the speaker, and one each by the governor, comptroller and chief justice. Hobby’s contribution to the jollity includes the Blanchard of Lubbock and Sen. Bill Meir of Fort Worth, a freshman up and comer. But that’s all right, Ben Barnes used to put “Diamond Jim” Bates of Edinburg on the thing. Speaker Daniel named John Poerner of Hondo for reasons which are not perfectly clear, and Jones, who just February 1, 19 74 3