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School bill looks good, but details are needed

Staff WriterMay 28, 2019

State leaders are congratulating each other for the major bill hammered out last week to increase spending for public education and reduce property taxes. It sounds promising, but the lack of details is inexcusable. Taxpayers should have known from the first announcement exactly what the bill would do and how it would be implemented. Lawmakers had better make sure it doesn’t contain any unpleasant surprises.

The best reason to be optimistic about the bill is that Democratic lawmakers joined “the big three” at the press conference unveiling the bill — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, all Republicans. The bipartisan support for the bill is the best evidence that it will do what it says, or at least do most of it.

But that’s “Kremlinology,” the old practice of watching how Soviet leaders lined up at Lenin’s tomb for unannounced clues to help figure out who had been promoted and who might have been sent to Siberia. In a democracy like ours, taxpayers deserve the facts from the start.

What is known about the bill is that it would apparently lower school property tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and by 13 cents in 2021. If the bill does this, that would be a significant boost to Texas homeowners. The bill’s backers say these savings total $5 billion for property owners.

The legislation also would provide $4.5 billion more for public education, including $2 billion for raises for teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians. Another major achievement would be full-day pre-K for low-income students. All of those things would make our state stronger and better. Again, however, details would be welcome.

One disappointment is that the new cap of 2.5 percent on annual school tax increases (without forcing a rollback election) is being sold as property tax relief from state officials. It is not. They didn’t do anything to lower property taxes in the state’s 1,200 school districts. They just interfered in the business of locally elected school boards. If those local school boards get unfunded state mandates that require them to increase spending, they look like the villain when the real blame lies in Austin.

The regular session ends on Monday, and it looks like this bill will be pushed forward and head for Gov. Abbott’s desk, where he intends to sign it into law. It probably contains more positives than negatives, and might even be as visionary as its backers claim. Unfortunately, to use an oft-criticized remark by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about Obamacare, lawmakers may have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

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