Monday, February 27, 2006

Issues in English - Education

The interesting language of politicalese often uses English words in ways designed to imply more than state fact, the phenomenon of “spin” we hear so often. It is my intention to lay out some of the issues of the campaign in plain English without endorsing any candidate, in keeping with the non-partisan goal of this Blog.

Education is understandably one of the leading issues in the race for State Representative. With two utterly unproductive Special Sessions and a Texas Supreme Court decision on education funding come and gone, the one thing that can be flatly said is that our current system is an indefensible mess. One thing we no longer have the luxury of choosing to do is nothing.

The Court decision is the controlling factor now, so I skip over a recap of the sound and fury. Courts in general are very reluctant to take a de facto reading of anything and declare it to be a de jure legal principle, but in this case the Court spent 140 dense pages doing just that and declared the Robin Hood financing scheme to be a state property tax and with that de facto turned into de jure, clearly unconstitutional. Then in a fit of judicial pique, the Justices made it clear they never wanted to see this mess again and gave the legislature until June to come up with a new method of finance or Texas could become the first state in a century without a statewide public school system, and I think they mean it.

That dog fight will start shortly after the primary elections. Regardless of the primary outcome of the race, the incumbent will be our representative for this Special Session. All campaign rhetoric aside, if the outcome of the Special is acceptable, reopening the question in the regular session next year will be an obstacle to overcome. A lot of legislators will be reluctant to tug too hard at loose ends lest the whole thing come undone.

Right or wrong, Texas Constitution and legislative rules were created by people deeply suspicious (for good reason at the time) of government power. Our system defaults toward gridlock, just for example, any bloc of 12 Senators can prevent any item from ever reaching a floor vote. I have heard reasonable arguments that the Lt. Governor, as head of the Senate has more real clout than the Governor, at least in matters legislative. It was so in the two Special Sessions and will be true in the upcoming Special; Unless and until the Big Three of Governor, Lt Governor and Speaker of the House come to an acceptable compromise, there is very little likelihood any individual member of House or Senate can cobble together a coalition strong enough to overcome all three power bases in the short term. It would require a very unlikely number of underdogs being elected to materially change this reality in the next legislature.

Forget an income tax, like it or not, that would require a Constitutional Amendment with voter approval. As a political reality at this time, that horse died before the starting gate opened. Some combination of a sales tax increase and a platter of business taxes seems likely from what we hear now. At this point remember that business tax ends up added to the sticker price of whatever, wage earners eventually pay all taxes however they might be dressed up. Taxes on corporations only target which consumers of what eventually pay the hidden tax.

On this issue, the important thing for the voter to bear in mind is that we should take with a large grain of salt any promise to bring to pass a particular vision of education funding, at least until we see what will be given the Special Session as a starting point. If it seems intentional to delay the Special Session until after the primary, I won't deny that thought entered the process. I don't believe it was a determining factor. Remember two points: only the Governor can call a Special Session and set the “call” or allowable agenda of the session; and realistically, I cannot imagine a circumstance that would cause any Governor to call a Special Session during campaign season short of a State of War within the state borders.

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