No excuses to not fund public education, other priorities
Good news, Texas lawmakers! You will have an extra $9 billion to work with over the next two years.
This is according to state Comptroller Glenn Hegar, whose office has forecast 8 percent growth in tax collections, largely from robust sales tax. That puts the budget for the next two years at $119 billion, which is about $9 billion more than previously expected.
Some of these additional funds will cover a shortfall at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and some will defray the cost of rebuilding from Hurricane Harvey, which punished the Texas coast in 2017 and led to catastrophic flooding in Houston. There is no shortage of holes these dollars can help fill.
Even with the rosy outlook, Hegar warns of potential economic storm clouds, citing uncertainty in the U.S. and global economies and Texas’ vulnerability as the top export state in the nation during a time of ongoing trade wars. Oil and gas prices are soft. The stock market is volatile.
But the obvious takeaway from this forecast is that Texas lawmakers have no excuses for not funding public education. The budget is billions more than expected. The rainy day fund is at $15.4 billion.
To be clear: It’s paramount public education funding is tied to dedicated funding sources. It can’t come permanently from the state’s rainy day fund, or from extra money announced at the beginning of the legislative session. It merits sustainable funding. There are a variety of ideas for such dedicated funding sources, although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other state officials have yet to choose a path forward.
Abbott has instead mostly focused on property tax relief, proposing an annual cap of 2.5 percent increases for school districts. The state would then make up the funding difference. Such a cap is far too low.
A Hearst analysis has found this could cost the state $3 billion a year by 2023, but the analysis also found local school districts would have collected $43 billion less in revenue over a nine-year period, had Abbott’s plan taken effect in 2008.
So, on one hand, the state would increase spending. But on the other hand, local school districts would also be out billions.
Clearly, this is not a winning formula — and should not be pursued.
State funding for education has diminished in recent years. It is projected to be 38 percent in 2019, and as the governor’s office has previously noted, it will likely fall below 30 percent by 2023.
It’s little wonder, then, that local school districts have become the driving forces behind property tax bills.
It’s clear: Texas’ economic future depends on a skilled workforce. That means a workforce whose members had sterling educations. And “sterling” means an education in which students learned the reading, writing and math basics and found themselves well prepared to education beyond high school — whether these be community colleges to earn certificates or vocational training or to four-year universities. The state’s future economy, the experts say, will need this level of educated workers.
This Legislature has to step up. The state can do better, and the recent comptroller’s forecast only underscores this point. The rainy day fund is overflowing. Sales tax dollars are strong.
There are no excuses for lawmakers to yet again fail on this issue.