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T HE TEXAS server OCTOBER 29, 1993 VOLUME 85, No. 21 FEATURES Congress: War Powers to Ye By Bob Eckhardt 6 Free Trade Blockade in El Paso By Pat LittleDog 8 Hearts and Minds in ‘El Norte’ By Sallie Hughes 12 Henry B. Takes on the Fed By James McCarty Yeager 14 DEPARTMENTS Editorials: Edgewood IV; Propositions 16 3.5 Molly Ivins 15 Books and the Culture . Corridos and the Don Book reviews by Joe Holley 16 The Stages of History Movie reviews by Steven G. Kellman 19 Afterword A Jazz Freedom Fighter Gets a Nobel Prize By Rosalind Alexander 22 Political Intelligence 24 Cover art by Michael Alexander I ET US. FIRST recognize creativity in the ftcourtroom. After two weeks of testimony in a Travis County District Court, where the state, represented by Assistant Attorney General Toni Hunter, defended the Legislature’s fourth attempt at school finance legislation, Bob Luna, an attorney representing property-rich school districts, concluded his argument against the existing system. And he used a federal statute enacted almost 30 years ago to advance the interests of the disenfranchised. Luna described several provisions of Senate Bill 7, the finance system enacted, in the final days of the legislative session that ended in May, as coercive. The super-rich districts that Luna represents have more than $280,000 in taxable wealth per student and have been compelled by the Legislature, which was compelled by the Texas Supreme, Court, to share some of their wealth with property-poor districts. The poorest district in Texas has less than $10,000 of taxable wealth per student. If the rich districts do not hold an election and vote for one of several Senate Bill 7 provisions that shift a small portion of their wealth to property-poor districts, they are subject to forced consolidation with a poorer district or forced detachment of some taxable property. A violation, Luna contended, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which according to the paragraph he reproduced on a chart provides that “no person shall intimidate, threaten, coerce or attempt to intimidate the right of … a person to vote as he may choose.” And as the statute applies to those operating “under color of the law” which in 1965 meant Deep South poll taxers and other Jim Crow obstructionists Luna claimed that the Texas Legislature has coerced the rich into voting away some of their property wealth in mandatory local elections. “This is a silly argument, isn’t it?” Judge Scott McCown said. As silly as it is, it illustrates the extremes to which the property-rich districts will go to protect their wealth, which before the alternating rounds of litigating and legislating began in 1984, existed at a ratio of about 3,000 to-1. Now, after four bills and three lawsuits parity ratio is down to 28-to-1. The judge showed little patience with wealthy districts participating in the case as defendant intervenors. McCown, who was selected to try the school finance cases after Judge Harley Clark retired, continually challenged attorneys such as Steve Bickerstaff, who represents several oil-rich West Texas school districts, and David Thompson, a former Texas Education Agency general counsel who now represents Humble I.S.D. and 153 other school districts. “You want me to order the Legislature to spend billions more?” McCown asked Thompson, after Thompson described Senate Bill 7 requirements as an “unfunded mandate” from the state, which forces school districts to increase local property taxes. McCown also asked Bickerstaff if his clients are prepared to go to the Legislature and lobby for an income tax. Bickerstaff replied that he himself had already advocated an income tax. The options, the judge said to Bickerstaff, are limited. “Do your clients want a complete redrawing of [school district] lines? Or a massive billion-dollar income tax? Or, it [the question of equity] cannot be resolved?” To Bill Olson, a Houston lawyer representing the property-rich Stafford Municipal School district in Fort Bend County, the judge posed a similar question. “If all the defendant intervenors want more state revenue, why is it so hard to get any at the Legislature?” McCown seemed more sympathetic to the state’s defense of the new school finance bill, observing that the Legislature has tried four times to provide a more equitable system, only to see each of the three previous laws struck down by the courts. He asked plaintiffs if there are now enough districts in the same boat with property-poor districts to persuade the Legislature to change the structure or increase funding. “It looks to me that the boat’s pretty full. Sail it over to the Legislature.. Come back in a few sessions if you don’t have any luck,” McCown said. Rick Gray, an Austin lawyer who with Al Kauffman of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund represents the property-poor districts, suggested in his closing argument that the court seems inclined to uphold Senate Bill 7, then explained why it shouldn’t. The $600-per-student gap between the richest and poorest districts is significant, Gray said, citing Education Commissioner Skip Meno who testified earlier that $600 per student equals $13,000 per year per classroom, an amount that buys a lot of education. Kauffman talked of a perpetual gap between rich and poor and urged the judge to rule against Senate Bill 7. Also, according to the plaintiffs, inadequate provision for facilities funding leaves poor districts, some of which are saddled with high growth and very poor facilities, to choose between educational programs or badly needed buildings. And, as matching funds from the state are based upon the school districts’ tax rate from the last year of the past biennium, poor districts now increasing tax rates still suffer a two-year lag in funding. As he concluded the trial, Judge McCown seemed to be ,beginning his deliberations, saying that he did not want his comments from the bench to be interpreted as a signal that he will uphold the existing school finance plan. “These are complicated and difficult arguments, and whatever I do has to be something that can be written and justified. I often find that I am unable to write and justify what I do,” McCown said. He predicted that he will have a ruling before Christmas. And after the judge adjourned the trial, not a single defendant intervenors’ attorney who in court had advocated a state income tax or an increase in state tax stood before the cluster of TV cameras to say so. L.D. EDITORIALS School Finance, Round IV THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3