In a pointed moment of Greg Abbott’s State of the State speech, the governor called out freshman House member Will Metcalf. Abbott said the Republican from Conroe is the youngest member of the Legislature, having been born in 1984. “For his entire life, the State of Texas has been mired in litigation about school funding,” Abbott said. “I think we can all agree it’s time to put school finance litigation behind us. It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”
Abbott was mostly correct. The only governor who has not had a school finance lawsuit hanging over his or her head since 1984’s Edgewood v. Kirby lawsuit was George W. Bush, also once known as Señor Suerte, Mr. Lucky. As Bush took office, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the so-called Robin Hood school finance plan adopted under Ann Richards was constitutional. Bush was free of the school finance headache. However, because of changing finances and demographics, no school finance funding formula remains intact for more than about ten years. So the school districts went back to court in 2003, and the state has been in litigation ever since, with a district judge ruling the system unconstitutional last year.
A decade of arguing has resolved little, and Abbott’s call to solve public school finance in Will Metcalf’s lifetime sounded like bold leadership. But like much of the rest of Abbott’s State of the State speech, he offered policies that polished the edges of Texas’ challenges without solving the bigger problems. For instance, the biggest problem of school finance is how to distribute money fairly and who has to pay for it. That is the detail that has bedeviled many of a state politician, and Abbott appears to be one more.
Instead of solving school finance, Abbott gave a token to Democrats by promising $182 million in new state funding for high quality Pre-K programs and additional training for early education teachers. He also proposed $164 million in new funding for digital learning opportunities, especially for students in low-performing schools. In a nod to the private school voucher Republicans, Abbott called on the state to follow the open enrollment model of Grand Prairie, where students can easily transfer schools and even attend from other districts. “Our parents deserve these choices,” Abbot said. At the same time, almost every school district in Texas already has school transfer plans in place, and Grand Prairie’s has been more aggressive because of declining enrollment. Although it is a couple of years old, the Texas Association of School Boards has a document laying out the state of the state on existing public school choice.
Abbott also wants to give local districts $2.2 billion to make up for money that would be lost through proposed property tax cuts. The state Supreme Court upheld Rick Perry on the adoption of a similar plan because it eliminated the appearance of a state property tax for schools, but the latest ruling by District Judge John Dietz has decalred the system unconstitutional for a lack of funding and fairness. It is difficult to see how a tax swap will resolve Dietz’s ruling.
Another issue where Abbott fell short of addressing the broader issue was on immigration and border security. The governor said he wants to double spending on border security to a total of about $735 million for the biennium so that 500 new state troopers and Texas Rangers can be deployed to the border. In a potential response to calls by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to keep the National Guard deployed on the border, Abbott said he has ordered the Guard to remain in place until the Texas Department of Public Safety can ramp up. “We must remember the hardship such long deployment puts on our National Guard troops, on their families and on their careers,” Abbott said.
Abbott expressed joy over a federal judge staying the implementation of President Obama’s immigration plan to halt deportations of people who came to the country illegally, particularly those whose children were born here and are legal U.S. Citizens. Abbott, as Texas attorney general, had led 26 states in a lawsuit to block Obama’s plan. “The last lawsuit that I filed as attorney general was a lawsuit to stop President Obama’s lawless executive action,” Abbott said. He promised, “We will do what the federal government has failed to do. We will secure our border.”
What Abbott did not do is address the larger issue of what to do with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States. Sealing the border may halt new immigration and border drug trafficking, but it does little to address the problems by those already here. And nothing in his speech dealt with the issue of the Texas law allowing undocumented youth who graduated from Texas schools to obtain in-state college tuition, a policy some Republicans want to eliminate. And the touchiness of the larger immigration issue played out in the Senate Nominations Committee this week as Senator Brian Birdwell grilled Abbott’s nominee for secretary of state – Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos about why he called unofficial immigrants “undocumented” instead of “illegal.”
Birdwell compared it to carrying a concealed weapon without having a concealed handgun license. In such a case, he said, “I’m not an undocumented CHL holder. I’m illegally carrying a weapon.
“I want to make sure that our language is precise, that whatever the intense motivations, ‘undocumented’ is very different than ‘illegal’,” he said. “In your position as secretary of state, when you see illegality, whatever it may be and from whomever it may be, I want you to address it in that way.”
Cascos responded, “I will, sir, very directly.”
Perhaps the larger issue of immigration is just a devil into whose details Greg Abbott does not want to dive.
In the arena of higher education, Abbott said, “We also want to see more of our high school graduates go on to college. To assist that goal, we must make college more affordable and accessible. We must restrain the spiraling cost of higher education so more Texans can reap the rewards that come from college.” However, he offered no specifics on how to achieve that goal, and instead pointed to the possibility of making community colleges and technical schools more available. “The fact is, not everybody needs a four-year college degree.” Abbott seemed to be saying everyone needs college but with lower expectations. Instead of Rick Perry’s $10,000 degree plan, Abbott delivered the everybody-as-a-welder plan, pointing to a Technical State Technical College graduate who earns $140,000 a year as a welder. “If this governor thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to TSTC to get a welder’s certificate,” Abbott said.
But when he put his money where is mouth is, his higher education proposals were for additional funding for enhanced research programs at institutions of higher learning. The additional $496 million for these programs mostly comes from redirecting money that currently is spent by either the Emerging Technology Fund or the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas to direct the funds to academic research. There also is a $532 million bailout of state higher education institutions on the cost of providing tuition credits to military veterans.
One area where Abbott did take a clear stand was on $4 billion transportation funding from Proposition 1 approved by voters last year, ending transfers of money from the highway fund to other state programs and through a constitutional amendment to dedicate half of the motor vehicle sales tax to highway construction. House Speaker Joe Straus opposes the constitutional amendment, claiming it is just a means of making voters give lawmakers cover on a tough spending vote.
Of note: Abbott declared five legislative emergency items today: early education, higher education research initiatives, transportation funding, border security and ethics reform. The Texas Constitution bars the passage of bills in the first 60 days of the 140-day session. All an emergency declaration does is allow lawmakers to move forward on legislation related to those items. The 60th Day this session if Friday March 13.
Overall, Abbott approached public policy in his State of the State address much as did governors who went before him, with limited policy initiatives taking the place of larger solutions. Abbott put public policy into the legislative mousetrap like a delicate piece of cheese. Then he nibbled at the edges just enough to make it look eaten without sticking his neck out so far as to trigger the trap.
(AP Image / Eric Gay)