An F for Effort

Too much finance, not enough school: That was one of the problems with the special session called for the purpose of eliminating Robin Hood in favor of—what? Nobody seemed to have a workable alternative. Regardless, the Speaker and the governor bumbled along, and all signs point to the people of Texas paying dearly.

I wish the Texas House of Representatives would install suites in the gallery. They’d make a fortune: comfortable chairs, leg room, food and drink, no DPS officers to admonish you for chortling with your neighbor at the antics on the House floor below. The business lobby would surely buy them, and members of the media could drop by to engage in speculation about which bills and amendments (and which legislators) were going to pass or fail. Come to think of it, the House could apply the revenue from the suites to public education—and the way things have been going in the special session on school finance, that’s about the only money the schools are likely to get.

So much for reverie. Instead of a suite, I find myself in a lobbyist’s cheerless office near the Capitol, watching a local public-access channel as the House debates its school finance bill. It is Tuesday, May 4, halfway through the special session. My invitation to join the lobbyist had come in a curious way: a voicemail message on my cell phone to “call James Hury.” The late James Hury was a Democratic state legislator from Galveston whose career was cut short when he was fatally injured in a freak on-the-ground collision during an air show. Although he was an effective lawmaker for his five terms in office, Hury is best remembered for trying to pass a tax bill during the 1991 session only to have the House turn on him. An amendment stripped one of his tax proposals from the bill, another amendment did the same, and the scent of blood was in the air. Before the debate was over, the House had consumed the carcass of Hury’s bill until only carrion remained to be sent to the Senate. I recognized the lobbyist’s voice on the phone message and headed for his office to see if his morbid prediction of carnage would come to pass.

The prediction turned out to be an understatement. The long-awaited moment when the House’s Republican majority would begin the process of dismantling the Robin Hood approach to school finance degenerated into a debacle. As eager as the Republicans were to get rid of Robin Hood—the system of funding public schools that places the burden on property-rich school districts like Highland Park, in Dallas—they were equally eager to vote against new money-raising measures that were necessary to replace the property taxes that had soared under Robin Hood. This was the moment when the Republicans’ anti-tax ideology came face to face with their responsibility to govern, and the pressure proved to be too great. The House went bonkers. The Republicans heaped humiliation upon Rick Perry, their own governor; they supported Democratic amendments to remove new taxes from the bill; they even embarrassed their Speaker, Tom Craddick, by defecting in sufficient numbers to defeat the leadership’s bill on the first vote (the result was later reversed). All of this was accompanied by one procedural maneuver after another—“Parliamentary inquiry, Mister Speaker”; “Point of order, Mister Speaker”—until Craddick and his top lieutenants were forced to invoke a parliamentary ploy of their own, a seldom used motion to shut off debate, rescue what was left of the bill, and pass the remaining scraps to the Senate.

I’m tempted to apologize for my too-obvious display of what the Germans call schadenfreude: reveling in the misery of others. Whenever I watch the Legislature, I wear three hats. One is that of a reporter, hoping for a good story. One is that of a citizen of Texas, hoping for good public policy. One is that of an appreciative spectator, hoping for good entertainment. The first longing is satisfied frequently, the second less so, and the third, in recent years, not at all. The battles have been too partisan, the participants too serious, to produce the kind of jousting that gave birth to the hoary jest “There are two things you should never see being made—legislation and sausage.” May 4 was a premium day for sausage-making.

But it was also a day that resurrected a question the Republicans thought they had put to rest: Can they govern? Their first term in control of all branches of state government has produced landmark tort reforms, a budget that dealt with a $9.9 billion shortfall without raising taxes, a mammoth highways initiative, and congressional redistricting. All of these successes, however, involved issues about which there was widespread agreement in their own party. School finance is different. It’s the toughest political issue there is: first, because education is the most important thing the state does; second, because it’s the most expensive thing the state does; third, because it involves devising a one-size-fits-all system that meets the needs of 1,224 unique school districts; and fourth, because it affects everybody—every parent, every taxpayer, every superintendent, every school in every legislator’s district. No other issue so mixes lofty ideals with parochial politics. And because it always requires a tax increase, lawmakers typically will not vote for a plan, and educators will not support one, unless the new system provides an increase in funding for every school district. All this would be difficult enough without the additional problem of putting an end to that elusive rascal Robin Hood, the bane of the rich school districts and the hero of the poor. The concern is not only that there is a lack of consensus in the Republican ranks—it’s that there may also be a lack of will.

As I write this, the calendar has advanced but the ball hasn’t. One week remains in the session. There is talk in the Senate of a possible deal, but the evisceration of the House bill on May 4 is still fresh in the memory. Miracles have happened before, but first the forces of coalescence must gain the upper hand over the forces of disintegration. The day after the House struck most of the revenue from its school finance bill, it resoundingly defeated a constitutional amendment authorizing a statewide property tax and legalizing video lottery terminals,


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