Cortes added, “I don’t think they can totally ignore it, because I think that they’re going to be setting themselves up for a further court case. And I think that the make-up of the Texas Supreme Court is still such that no one could call how it would come down. It could come down for the plaintiffs. And so .I think that those people who are reasonable want a legislative solution and recognize it as a very serious problem.” Cortes said he believes Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who presides over the Senate, is committed to equity in school funding and that he sees favorable sentiment in the House, as well. “Whether or not it will be strong enough to override a potential veto from the governor, I don’t know,” he said. Cortes also said he hopes to see the school funding issue discussed in a wider context. “What I’m hopeful of is, that instead of just approaching it in terms of equalization, we recognize that we’ve got to spend more money for people, period.” He said the basic allotment by which the state spends an average of $2300 per student is too low. And he argues that more spending on education would mean a drop in delinquency and crime, and, thus, less state spending in the long run for prisons. This is what he admires in Lt. Gov. Hobby’s anti-crime plan. As articulated by Hobby’s aide Camille Miller, who spoke to the IAF group Valley Interfaith in January, “Our plans to expand the state prison systems are based on prison population projections that assume the incarceration of children who are now seven, eight, or nine years old. We are telling these children that we do not have the resources to help them now but we are reserving a $30,000-per-year prison bed for them when they turn 18 or 19.” But how much would it cost to fund additional educational programs and to pump more state money into the state’s poorest school districts? Cortes sets the price tag at $800 million for a two-year period. Colonias. As news stories and legislative studies over the last two years have drawn more attention to the dire living conditions in the hundreds of subdivisions along the border, nearly everyone admits that it is one of the most pressing of the state’s social problems. Anywhere from 140,000 to 200,000 people are estimated to be living in the border colonias without running water or sewage systems. It has not been difficult for activists to get the state’s leading Democratic officeholders enlisted in an effort to do something about the water problem. State Treasurer Ann Richards, Attorney General Jim Mattox, Comptroller Bob Bullock, and Lt. Gov. Hobby, have all joined Valley Interfaith and El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization part will be getting it through the legislature. The plan that state officials and community leaders have worked on, with the staff of the Texas Water Development Board, is to issue $500 million in general revenue bonds to allow colonias to begin putting water and sewage systems in place. Eventually the bond money would be paid back, through bills paid by the colonias residents themselves. “This is not a giveaway program,” Cortes said. According to Valley Interfaith’s lead organizer Christine Stephens, the proposed legislation allows colonias, which are by nature in unincorporated areas not served by city utilities, to get together and fund their own water and sewer systems. She said residents will have to pay up to $30 a month for a utility bill once the new systems are in place. This, she admits, is less than ideal. But in the age of federal cutbacks and governmental austerity, it may be the best hope for getting started on the problem. “Grant moneys are just not available anymore,” she said. While Richards and Bullock have participated in developing a bond proposal, the staff of Atny. Gen. Mattox has worked on a provision in the legislation that would give counties the authority to regulate the development of colonias. Cortes said that one of the reasons Congressional attempts to fund water development have not passed is because some Senators insisted that it is the responsibility of the states to stop the proliferation of the colonias. Such a provision is a key part of the colonias bill that will be carried in the state legislature by Reps. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Alex Moreno, D-Edinburg, and by Senators Tati Santiesteban, D-El Paso, and Hector Uribe, D-Uvalde, Cortes said. Cortes still hopes to see money appropriated by Congress, as well, though he adds wryly, “There doesn’t seem to be as much interest [in Congress] now as there was before the election.” He said Senator Lloyd Bentsen has made a committment through a telegram to Valley Interfaith to push for colonias funding. Health care. The thrust of IAF’s efforts on health care this session will be to expand the number of people covered by Medicaid. Although this is a federal program, it is a state concern because the state pays 40 cents for every 60 cents in federal money. Cortes said the state’s rules on who is now eligible for Medicaid are “abominable.” Though he looks with favor on a proposal currently being discussed in the Lt. Gov.’s office to allow children up to three years old to be covered, “we’d like to see it go a little further, to eight-year-olds.” The income level at which a person becomes eligible for Medicaid now at 23 percent of the federal poverty line is also too low, he said. He would like to see Medicaid coverage opened up especially to allow pregnant women who earn as much as 185 percent of the poverty level to be covered. This, of course, would carry another hefty price tag from $100 million to $200 million in extra state funding, Cortes said. But even given the “tight-fisted, parsimonious . .. mean-spirited attitude toward these kind of things,” Cortes said, “I can’t, frankly, see why there should be that much resistance to providing health care coverage to children. . . . It makes our state awfully unattractive to people who want to invest in this state, that we could be so insensitive to children’s issues.” Revenue. How will such an ambitious social spending agenda have a fighting chance in a no-new-taxes legislature? Cortes doesn’t pretend that such programs can be funded without tax reform. “Frankly, we think the state needs an income tax,” he said. “We hope there’s some willingness to seriously look at that question.” Cortes speaks of the need for both a corporate and personal income tax. “But obviously the biggest money generator is going to be your personal income tax. I think probably we start in Texas with a corporate income tax.” The problem is, most legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, have ruled out an income tax in the session immediately preceding the coming fight over reapportionment \(which will be taken up by the voter backlash to an income tax might put enough Republicans in the House to alter the balance of power in the legislature. Cortes admits this factor, though not happily. “Essentially, you have the state being held hostage to redistricting, which is understandable politically, but tragic in terms of lives being wasted,” he said. An approach that may be more realistic in the short run, he said, is to expand the base of the sales tax so that it covers those sectors of the service industry that are not now covered. “The difficulty right now is that there is so much economic activity which is not included in the sales tax. And it needs to be expanded. If you’re going to continue the sales tax it needs to be expanded to services. I think there needs to be some serious thought about tax equity and tax fairness,” he said. All in all, it is an ambitious agenda for IAF and the other social spending advocates at the 71st legislature. But later this month IAF community organizers from around the state will begin making their treks to Austin. They plan to meet with experts on the state’s tax structure and look into possibilities of forming an alliance with the business community to push for tax reform. “It’s really in nobody’s interest to have an undereducated and chronically ill population and workforce,” Cortes said. “Good politics and good economics are beginning to mesh.” And when busloads of people start coming in from El Paso, and from Houston and San , Antonio, and from the Rio Grande Valley, and when they rally at the state capital, they will not be there to tell the legislators to take the easy way out. Legislators who care to pay attention will be able to see from the faces of many of these people that they have had their share of tough times, too. Sooner or later, a rash of political courage may break out. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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