On the surface, the letter looked perfectly innocuous. Right under the logo of the 1992 Republican National Convention, it began “Dear Transportation Volunteer” and went on to inform readers about an orientation meeting for people willing to shuttle visitors to the Houston convention. What the letter did not say was that with the convention just a month away, the volunteer operation has been plagued by internecine warfare and is, according to GOP sources in Houston, several thousand volunteers short.
Longtime GOP workers in Houston had anticipated that they would be rewarded with some plum assignments to work the convention—and some have landed the sought-after Astrodome ushering jobs. But the volunteer operation is run by the Houston Host Committee, a bipartisan operation. Many of the good assignments, say the disappointed GOP folks, have been snapped up by allies of former mayor Kathy Whitmire, whose Republican credentials, the GOP’ers say, range from scant to nonexistent.
Then the GOP loyalists got the Dear Transportation Volunteer letter in the mail. That only added bumps to the already-bruised feelings. The host committee had sent the letter to everyone who had filled out volunteer forms. “We are very excited to have you as a vital part of our Transportation team!” the letter said. Don’t count on it.
Robin Hood II
Another school- finance plan—yes, again—is making the Capitol rounds after an Austin judge vowed to cut off funding for public schools next June if the Legislature doesn’t come up with a solution to the crisis. His announcement took state leaders by surprise. The conventional wisdom inside the Capitol was that Judge Scott McCown would appoint a master to write a plan—and that suited a lot of legislators just fine. They wouldn’t have to cast an unpopular vote, and they could blame the outcome on meddling judges.
But now the Legislature must produce a plan or face the consequences. The options are limited and politically brutal: consolidation of school districts, which means small districts would lose their independence—and their football teams; state funding of education, which means that a state income tax would be necessary to replace local property taxes; a Robin Hood plan, which means taking property-tax revenue from rich districts and giving it to poor districts; or a constitutional amendment to get the courts out of the process. The first two options are politically impossible, rich districts oppose the third, and poor districts oppose the fourth. The new plan is a combination of the third and the fourth. It targets school districts with the most property wealth in the state, which together have about 7 percent of the school population. These losers are districts with oil and gas (Iraan, for example), big industrial plants (Glen Rose), or expensive residential or commercial property (Highland Park). In these districts the state-imposed property-tax rate will raise far more money per pupil than the amount of basic state aid. The entire excess will be captured by the state and distributed to poorer districts (after some shell games to try to avoid the Robin Hood label). If the rich districts want to spend more than the basic state aid on their students, they are free to raise their property taxes still higher. Because the plan doesn’t guarantee full equality between rich and poor districts, it will require a constitutional amendment so that the courts can’t strike it down. If Ann Richards will sign on, look for a special session following the November elections.
Get on Board
There will probably be a special session in November no matter what. Some of the governor’s most important and controversial appointments have yet to be confirmed by the Senate—including members of boards regulating the environment, utilities, and insurance. When the regular legislative session begins next January, the odds are that the Republicans will have enough senators—at least 11 out of 31—to block Ann Richards’ appointees. A special session would allow for a confirmation vote while the Democrats still have more than a two-thirds majority.