Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is making a compelling argument that the state needs an income tax. With a PowerPoint presentation at hand, Patrick opened this week by demonstrating to about two hundred people at a pre-special session conference of the Texas Public Policy Foundation that under the state’s current tax structure there is no money available for an expensive fix to the public school finance system and the high local property taxes that pay for the lion’s share of it. The state spent what it had on the current two-year budget, he said. “That’s all there is folks,” Patrick said. “There is no more money.”
Patrick, of course, is not advocating for an income tax. He opposes a state income tax. But Patrick was using it as a specter to haunt House Speaker Joe Straus, who wants to tackle the thorny issue of public school finance while figuring out how to pay down local property taxes. “I believe there is a movement within our own party, led by the speaker, who wants to pass a personal income tax and billions and billions of dollars to increase spending,” Patrick said. “You’ve heard him say again and again and again that you have to put billions and billions of dollars into public education.” Straus on Monday stated flatly that he also opposes an income tax but favors school finance reform.
An income tax is the biggest boogeyman in Texas politics. Former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock found that out after he proposed one in 1991 to pay for public schools. Opposition was so swift among both Democrats and Republicans that Bullock pushed through a state constitutional amendment requiring voter approval to adopt an income tax. Even if Joe Straus actually wanted an income tax, the reality of it ever passing muster with state voters is almost nil.
The special legislative session opens today with both Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott advocating for a teacher pay raise that is essentially mandated by the state onto the local school districts. In his PowerPoint presentation, Patrick said there is no need for any more money in the public school system. Patrick said school districts merely need to “reprioritize” their current levels of spending. According to Patrick, teachers statewide receive just 32 percent of the $60 billion in local, state and federal revenue spent on public education every year in Texas. “That’s out of whack,” Patrick said. “Buildings don’t teach reading.”
When Patrick says there is no more money, he is correct. The state budget balanced without paying down the cost of running the schools. In fact, because of rising local property values, the funding formula for public schools allowed the state to shift more than $1 billion in costs to the local school districts. The state share of public school finance has dropped from about 45 percent in the middle of the past decade to about 37 percent in the upcoming year. Fixing public school finance and lowering public school property taxes would require a huge infusion of state money, and that would require some sort of state tax increase. As I noted earlier this year, if your property taxes are too high, thank a legislator.
More and more, local property taxpayers carry the burden of paying for schools. Buildings don’t teach, but they do give teachers a place to teach. According to the state’s Bond Review Board, school districts presently have $72 billion in bonded tax debt that was approved by local voters, which works out to close to $16,000 per student. Paying on this debt can run into millions of dollars for school districts, and this doesn’t include expenditures for school buses, lunches, librarians, janitors, or administrators. On top of that, the Robin Hood school finance system means many school districts collect property tax locally that the state then transfers to poorer school districts. Abbott, in his own speech to the public policy foundation, said he wants to eliminate Robin Hood — a great battle cry if he’d only explain how.
When it comes to Patrick’s claim about the percentage of education money spent on teachers in the classroom, compare that to the military parlance known as a tooth-to-tail ratio. At the end of World War II, for example, the U.S. military in Europe had 39 percent of its personnel serving as combat troops (“the tooth”), while the remaining personnel covered support, logistics and administration (“the tail”). In the Kuwait Theater of Operations in 1991, the “tooth” accounted for just 30 percent.
Even if 32 percent of the total spending on education in Texas is going to the tooth – teachers in the classroom – it is not out of line with what the military spends to keep boots on the ground.
To contemplate Patrick’s contention that schools can reprioritize spending by shifting it around to create teacher pay raises, I decided to look at a school district budget. And because the Senate Education Committee is chaired by Senator Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican, I chose the Friendswood ISD.
The district had an average daily attendance of 5,888 students for 2016-17 and a total budget of $47.9 million. Of that, $29.8 million came from local property taxes, while $16.5 million came from the state. The state’s share of paying the bills in Friendswood already was down to 34 percent of the total last year – and the district showed it received no federal funds. Friendswood spent 83 percent of all its money on payroll, with 71 percent of that spending dedicated to instruction.
The Friendswood school trustees wanted to give their teachers a pay raise. There simply was no money to move around, or reprioritize as Patrick would describe it. Trustees last year approved a $1,500 pay raise for teachers and a 2.5 percent increase for all other employees to keep up with the cost of living. But the pay raise was going to require a local tax increase of 9 percent, so a tax rollback election was required. Local voters gave it the seal of approval. However, the state system, like a blackjack dealer, shaved money off the top for the house. The Texas Education Agency noted the increase in local tax effort and took $232,000 away from the district for the Robin Hood recapture.
In a Community Impact report, Friendswood superintendent Trish Hanks said, “We made some drastic cuts when the Legislature cut [funding] in 2011. We hired back most of the teacher spots but not the administrative and specialist spots. Our students were suffering. Our schools were suffering… It’s not just a matter of losing the money, though, because the district raised taxes more than it needed knowing part of it would go to the state. We calculated all of that for the [election]. We knew that we would probably have to pay a penny’s worth of that increase back to the state. That’s why we raised it the amount that we did.”
In short, a penny of the Friendswood tax increase contributed to that billion dollars that the Legislature did not have to give to the schools this year. The state system reprioritized the local tax increase to Dan Patrick’s advantage.
Patrick and Abbott can play all the statistical games they want, but if the real goal is to restructure public school finance and lower local property taxes, it is going to require a major infusion of money at the state level – or an admission that the state simply cannot do its fair share to fund the public schools of Texas. But all Abbott has put on the special session agenda is a proposal to study public school finance for the next two years.
So if your public school property taxes are too high, blame Patrick and Abbott for the next two years.