Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson surprised a lot of people in July when the School Land Board—that’s Patterson and two other guys—voted not to shave $300 million off the Permanent School Fund to help fund Texas’ starving schools.
One reason the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education last session, and not $5.7 billion, is that lawmakers expected the General Land Office to throw that $300 million into the schools’ general funds if Proposition 6—the ballot measure that would free Patterson’s office to transfer the money—passed last November.
The Permanent School Fund is a $26 billion trust meant to ensure long-term stability for Texas’ school system. School districts use it to back their bond issues, which helps keep their interest rates low. Proposition 6 made it easier for the General Land Board to move the fund’s money directly into the schools budget, and somewhere last session, lawmakers got the idea that Patterson would throw in $300 million.
State Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, told the Texas Tribune’s Morgan Smith that he “was told that there would be $300 million going into the Available School Fund. Everything was put in place to allow to that to happen.” Patterson denied making any such deal and couldn’t find any record of anyone in his office doing so either. He said he simply decided the smarter play was to hold onto that $300 million for future investments.
So on Friday, the Austin-based group Progress Texas launched a letter-writing campaign to the GLO, under the headline “Jerry Patterson Hoards $300 Million from Texas Students.” To help you get the idea, they photoshopped Patterson’s nearly neckless head onto a guy holding a huge pile of bills, with a school boy passed out on his desk next to that. “Let’s tell Patterson to stop playing political games and release the $300 million to public schools we already approved in last November’s election,” the site says.
By Monday morning, the group’s director Matt Glazer said 3,200 people had unloaded their form emails into Patterson’s inbox. “I get what his point is. His point is that the Legislature should’ve done something. But the thing is, there’s no reason why they need to be holding Texas school children hostage to make a political point,” Glazer said. “This is one of those things we’re gonna keep working on until he does the right thing.”
But Patterson, a Republican running in a packed race for lieutenant governor in 2014, saw an opening to call out the group in epic fashion, which is just what he did Wednesday afternoon.
In a two-page letter meant for folks who took part in the Progress Texas campaign, Patterson begins by upbraiding them for their amateurish method of civic engagement.
“Dear Concerned Texan,” he begins. “Thank you for clicking ‘TAKE ACTION’ on www.progresstexas.com and emailing the auto-generated letter to me. I appreciate your interest in public education finance.”
Patterson goes on to detail the reasons why he kept that $300 million in the Permanent School Fund. Among them: It’s called the Permanent School Fund for a reason, and there’s a constitutional limit on how much can be paid out each year. “Were this not the case, past legislatures would have long ago depleted the fund so that they could brag about how they didn’t increase your taxes,” he writes. “Spending the school kid’s savings to cover today’s bills is irresponsible.”
Even if we are talking about covering the school kid bills with the school kid’s savings. Patterson points out that none of the lawmakers that happily avoided drawing down the Rainy Day Fund last session had any qualms about asking him to fork over a slice of the Permanent School Fund—even though his fund’s investments have outperformed the Rainy Day Fund by 22-to-1. It’s a complicated issue, and Patterson carefully defends his reasoning, point by point.
He also peppers his letter with gleeful little digs at Progress Texas’ work, pointing out factual errors in the sample letter they generated, calling it a “‘slacktivist’ campaign” and the emails it generated “erroneous, misguided, and pointless.”
At the state Republican Party convention this year, Patterson spent almost the entire weekend next to his vintage truck, shaking hands and meeting folks. He was by far the easiest to reach if you had something on your mind. But “pointless” is a pretty strong word for a few thousand critical emails, even ones that took about as much work as signing a petition.
Patterson isn’t alone in questioning how effective this kind of campaign can be. Just last week, documents surfaced showing that Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman had been intentionally blocking a mass email campaign organized by the consumer group Texas Watch.
Progress Texas said it still wouldn’t call off its campaign, though they agree Patterson’s right to be critical of the shell games lawmakers used to let themselves off the hook last session. “We agree with Jerry Patterson that Governor Perry and Republicans in the Texas Legislature who control the budget do a terrible job funding our schools. Patterson must stop insulting Texans and stop jeopardizing the education of millions of Texas school children.”
In an email, Glazer said all the effort Patterson has devoted to fighting back just shows his group’s campaign has struck a nerve. “This isn’t about it being effective or not, it’s about creating an excuse to ignore folks,” Glazer said. “When he doesn’t like what Texans tell them, he undermines them and calls them names. Classy.”