The Week in the Rearview Mirror

School (finance) is out for summer.State District Judge John Dietz — whose ruling against the state's school finance system provided the deadline for this year's special session — lifted the June 1 deadline. Dietz had ordered the Legislature to fix the unconstitutional system, and he was backed by the Texas Supreme Court. After lawmakers decided to lower local property taxes — giving some financial breathing room to school districts — lawyers for the state and for the districts that sued went to Dietz to lift his injunction. Officially now, that's done.

This month, while Rick Perry squandered away a truly historic opportunity to put schools on solid financial footing, I traveled the state on my Texas Education Tour. I visited schools and talked with teachers and administrators and listened with students. I am truly amazed at what they had to say.One high-school classroom in McAllen stands out in my mind. To break the ice, I asked some students in a senior government class how much time they had spent preparing for the TAKS test. Their reply — blank stares. The question made no sense to them. Finally, one student spoke up. "All of our time was spent on TAKS," he said. The principal, walking me through the classrooms, jumped in and pulled me aside. "These are the children of TAKS" he said. "Their entire school careers have revolved around the TAKS test." He told me he wonders whether young people are taught to think or whether they are taught to regurgitate certain facts. It's time for all of us to begin wondering the same. Here is yet another aspect of Rick Perry's tax plan that leads me to believe that when it comes to the problems that have our schools headed in the wrong direction. Rick Perry just doesn't get it. Perry is proud to point out the $300 million provided for teacher incentives in his plan that are tied to the TAKS test. While teachers deserve every penny of that $300 million, it is not right to pay teachers at the expense of our children's education. Perry's $300 million could be better spent on giving teachers an additional $1,000 across-the-board raise which would bring teachers halfway to the national average and bring the goal of paying teachers a professional salary within our reach. Rick Perry's misguided merit pay plan is more than another wasted opportunity. Linking teacher incentives to TAKS clearly shows that Rick Perry has no clue how to improve our schools. The problem is no longer "teaching to the test." Now they simply "teach the test," leaving little time for anything else. Students lose a more than a month each year to drilling for tests. By the end of high school they've lost a more than a year. Our children lose an entire year of book reports, term papers, and science projects in preparing for the TAKS test. This is why the McAllen principle called them the "Children of TAKS" and what Sheri Isett called the "Tyranny of TAKS." The TAKS tail is wagging our public school system. It is driving teachers away from schools and leaving Texas with the highest dropout rate in the country and kids scandalously under prepared for college. It has stolen a year's worth of education from our children. It is time we give it back. We cannot treat Texas teachers like glorified test monitors and pay them accordingly. The only incentive teachers need is the authority to run their classrooms and the respect that comes with a professional salary. Bell is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. His website is at

Texas Weekly's Soapbox is a venue for opinions, spins, alternate takes, and other interesting stuff sent in by readers and others. We moderate submissions to keep crazy people out, and anonymous commentary is ineligible. Readers can respond (through the moderator) to things posted here. Got something to submit? We're interested in everything from full-blown opinion pieces to short bits to observations or tidbits that have escaped us and the mass media. One rule: Your name goes on your words. Call or send an email: Ross Ramsey, Editor, Texas Weekly, 512/288-6598,

The political season is upon us. From here on out it's going to be Rick vs. Carole vs. Chris vs. Kinky, with a little congressional politics sprinkled on top. But first, Texas says goodbye to a political legend...* * * * * Sen. Bentsen's Death The death of former U.S. Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Jr. led to many blog tributes and laments. Matthew Odom at Austinist called him an "Atticus Finch-like figure." Houstopia writer Keir Murray said, "...his departure from electoral politics in Texas sadly slammed the door shut for Democrats winning statewide. Kay Bailey Hutchison replaced him in 1993, and the rest is history. That door has not been reopened since." Charles Kuffner at Off the Kuff had similar comments: "Maybe if he'd been around to campaign for the statewide ticket in 1998, John Sharp would have beaten Rick Perry for the Lt. Gov. job, and Paul Hobby would have held off Carole Keeton Strayhorn Rylander for Comptroller. Imagine what the political landscape might look like now if that had happened. Ah, well." The Power Line noted that Sen. Bentsen's obituary in the New York Times was written by a man who died five months earlier — further proof that writers have immortality. * * * * * Dueling Digits Exactly how much of a property tax cut Texans will see because of the special session was the subject of a press release "war." Gov. Rick Perry said the savings would equal approximately $2,000 over the next three years. His Independent opponent, Carole Keeton Strayhorn said the savings would be closer to $600. Then former Comptroller/Tax Plan Guru John Sharp said the savings would be about $1,300. Of Sharp, Eye on Williamson County quipped, "Isn't that brave!? He's driving right down the center stripe, not trying to burn any Republican or Independent bridges. Not to mention his non-denial, denial of future political ambitions." Vince Leibowitz at Capitol Annex joked, "...I wouldn't be surprised if CKMRS (Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn) just strolls down to one of the bathrooms in the LBJ building where her office is, writes down one of the 'for a good time call…' telephone numbers scrawled on the walls, and adds a few zeros." "Perry," he continued, "Probably does something a little more sophisticated though, like just taking the Texas Lottery numbers from the previous night (Pick 3 or Cash 5 depending on how many he needs) and throwing on a couple zeros." * * * * * Party Politics The state GOP Convention convenes in San Antonio later this week. The state Democratic Convention meets the following week in Ft. Worth. That's your last warning. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, compared his party's state convention to the Mexican sport of Lucha Libra on A Capitol Blog. "Come on," he says, "It's great theatre wrapped up in a political argument and it is certainly more entertaining than the flood of e-mails I'm getting." Karl-Thomas Musselman of Burnt Orange Report says 60% of state Democratic party delegates who were polled haven't decided yet who'll they'll support as party chair, but of those who have decided, former state representative Glen Maxey leads the pack. We haven't seen any of the conservative blogs writing yet on their convention, other than mentioning the Harris County GOP passed a resolution opposing HB 3 and urged Gov. Perry to veto it. * * * * * The DeLay Files Musings, a blog dedicated to the election of Nick Lampson in CD-22, tells his readers what went on inside the Fort Bend Club and Spirit of Freedom Republican Club's candidate forum on May 25th. He apparently got the inside scoop from Fran Fenway (real name?) who posted at Juanita's, another liberal blog dedicated to CD-22 politics. Many bloggers are also getting a kick out of Rep. Tom DeLay using a satirical report by comedian Stephen Colbert as a way to raise funds for his legal defense. * * * * * Enron Verdict Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were found guilty. Houstopia said, "Though we worship at the altar of American capitalism (it is the best system out there), and as much as we love to decry government meddling in commerce, a travesty like Enron reminds us that we do need real rules and real consequences for such unscrupulous behavior." * * * * * Travel-blogue If you haven't decided yet where to go on your summer vacation, The Agonist's Sean-Paul Kelley has been touring China in recent weeks and shares his videos and photos of the Great Wall of China with his readers. It's kind of like watching a home movie, only the location is a little more exotic than Disneyland. Video-blogging is apparantly the next big thing on the web. Which, of course, means someday we'll have America's Funniest Blogs.

Robyn Hadley cherry-picks the state's political blogs each week, looking for news, info, gossip, and new jokes. Robyn, a veteran of both journalism and the state Capitol, is the owner of Capitol Crowd, a networking site for people who work in and around state government. The opinions she quotes belong to the bloggers, and we're including their links so you can hunt them down if you wish. Please send comments, suggestions, gripes or retorts to Robyn at, or to Texas Weekly editor Ross Ramsey, at

Not only does the Texas Constitution require lawmakers to craft an equitable public school system, it's the right thing to do. We have one public school system in Texas to educate the next generation of leaders. History shows us that greatness can grow from humble beginnings, and its our job to make sure everyone has the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their zip code.It was with that in mind that rural and urban lawmakers, representing the needs of both rich and poor, crafted a school finance solution that will better serve all Texans. This latest special session was enormously successful. Poor school districts will have access to more money than ever before, and wealthy districts will be able to keep much more of the money they generate locally. All teachers will receive a $2,000 pay raise. Homeowners will pay lower property taxes. And, the playing field for business has been leveled. This coming school year, the school finance plan compresses the local school property tax rate by 17 cents. School districts whose rates are currently at the $1.50 maintenance and operations cap will reduce their rates to $1.33. School districts that are currently below the $1.50 cap will see their rates drop proportionately. The following school year, the rate is further compressed to $1. To accomplish this, the state will step in with funding for education that had been provided by the local property tax. This state investment will equalize education dollars to the historic level of the 88th percentile, far above the 73rd percentile now funded. Students across Texas will benefit from education funding at the level of the Dallas Independent School District, which is presently ranked at the 88th percentile. These percentiles indicate where a school district ranks based on its property wealth per student - the wealthiest school district in Texas is at the 100th percentile. A new local enrichment tier will provide school districts with the "meaningful local discretion" in setting property tax rates required by last year's Texas Supreme Court decision. This new funding tier will raise an even greater amount of money for every penny of tax rate. The first four cents of any new tax rate locally levied will be free of recapture for wealthy school districts; poor school districts' funding in this tier will be equal to spending at the Austin Independent School District, currently just below the 95th percentile. Texas' contribution to these two formulas will raise the state's investment from 34 percent to 50 percent of the cost to educate our children. In addition to investing a historic amount of money in schools, this Legislature reformed our state's franchise tax. The new system will provide a fair, reasonable levy that replaces the current tax, which many businesses avoid through existing loopholes. This legislation returns to the original intent of the franchise tax, which is payment from those who enjoy liability protection under our state's laws. We accomplished the long-stated goal "broadening the base and lowering the rate" of the business tax. The new base of the tax will be computed on gross receipts less, at the election of the business, employment costs or the cost of goods sold. The current franchise tax is based on business income, with an alternative minimum tax based on net worth. And, the primary rate is dropped from 4.5 percent under the old franchise tax to 1 percent (0.5 percent for wholesalers and retailers). This plan protects small businesses. Sole proprietors and general partnerships are exempt from the tax. In addition, we doubled the small business exemption from $150,000 in gross receipts to $300,000 (adjusted for inflation beginning in 2009). If the business's tax liability is calculated to be less than $1,000, no tax is due. In essence, this reform accomplishes the following: it taxes all entities that enjoy liability protection; it taxes gross receipts minus certain deductions; it taxes at a lower rate; and it computes the tax based on gross receipts as opposed to income and net worth. Small businesses will no longer be unfairly burdened. This landmark reform requires large companies, such as Dell Computer Corporation and Wal-Mart, to pay their fair share for the privilege of doing business in Texas. The steps taken this year by the current Legislature injected new life into three of our most fundamental endeavors: public education, home ownership and Texas business. As these measures become law and evolve, expect to see great things from our students, our communities and our economy. Duncan, R-Lubbock, has represented West Texas in the Legislature since 1993. During the school finance debate, he served on the Senate Select Committee on Education Reform and School Finance.

Texas Weekly's Soapbox is a venue for opinions, spins, alternate takes, and other interesting stuff sent in by readers and others. We moderate submissions to keep crazy people out, and anonymous commentary is ineligible. Readers can respond (through the moderator) to things posted here. Got something to submit? We're interested in everything from full-blown opinion pieces to short bits to observations or tidbits that have escaped us and the mass media. One rule: Your name goes on your words. Call or send an email: Ross Ramsey, Editor, Texas Weekly, 512/288-6598,

Notably absent from the Republican leadership's self-congratulatory comments regarding the recently completed special session on public school finance were any references to the fact that, due to leadership's inaction, over 1.3 million senior citizens and people with disabilities in Texas will receive little or no property tax relief. Given that the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker were all in positions to intervene on behalf of these vulnerable populations, living for the most part on fixed incomes, I question why the interests of these particular elderly and disabled Texans were left so far behind. House Bill 1, the property tax reduction bill, as proposed, neglected to provide proportionate tax relief for seniors and people with disabilities currently receiving a freeze on tax increases as other homeowners would receive. Realizing that these seniors and disabled Texans had been left out of the bill, I offered an amendment and introduced a constitutional amendment to ensure that all Texas homeowners, including those whose taxes are frozen because they are over 65 or have a disability, would receive the same level or proportion of tax relief. The amendment was adopted by the House and retained in the bill by the Senate. But the constitutional amendment still needed to pass. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee told me that "a decision had been made" (by whom, I wondered) to not let my proposed constitutional amendment get out of committee. Instead, legislation sponsored by Leo Berman (R–Tyler) that would provide a temporary reduction in taxes for seniors and people with disabilities, but would also allow their taxes to float up in the future, was quickly passed out of the committee and scheduled for floor debate. Rep. Berman asked me to sign on to his bills as a joint author. I told him that as long as language authorizing property taxes owed by senior and disabled Texans to float up remained in his proposals, I would not. Such language was antithetical to the firmly established principle of a tax freeze for these populations. Berman argued that the additional amount of taxes owed by seniors and people with disabilities would not amount to that much. I asked him why, then, were he and leadership so insistent upon including the float-up language? He said something about "fairness." Once again, the full House accepted amendments to replace the Berman bills with my original language, providing proportionate tax relief and a permanent tax freeze for seniors and people with disabilities. But Berman's proposed constitutional amendment, as amended, still had to pass in the Senate. (Berman's stand-alone bill, as amended to reflect my original language, did not have to pass in the Senate because both the House and Senate had retained my language in House Bill 1.) Despite repeated pleas from the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, Texas Senior Advocacy Coalition and AARP, as well as from a bi-partisan group of legislators, including Rep. Berman and me, the proposed constitutional amendment was never considered for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee, effectively killing the measures intended to provide proportionate tax relief and a permanent tax freeze for seniors and people with disabilities. At any point during the waning days of the special session, the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker could have impressed upon the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee the importance of voting out the requisite constitutional amendment. But they chose to not do so. The votes were there, the necessity was apparent. In the end, 1,181,825 elderly and 146,945 disabled Texans were left out. For those of you interested in understanding why the Republican leadership pushed so hard for Rep. Berman's float-up language and, when my proportionate tax relief and freeze language was substituted, proceeded to kill the proposed constitutional amendment, consider the following. Since House Bill 1 requires any increase in school tax rates above four cents to go before the voters, the Berman float-up language would have ensured that there was a built-in constituency to vote against school districts raising their rates, and would have further limited the ability of school districts to exercise local control and raise needed revenues. Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist loved Berman's float-up language. So did our Republican leadership. That's why the proposed constitutional amendment was killed. That's why over 1.3 million seniors and people with disabilities in Texas will receive little or no property tax relief. Naishtat, D-Austin, has been a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1991 and serves on the Human Services Committee.

Texas Weekly's Soapbox is a venue for opinions, spins, alternate takes, and other interesting stuff sent in by readers and others. We moderate submissions to keep crazy people out, and anonymous commentary is ineligible. Readers can respond (through the moderator) to things posted here. Got something to submit? We're interested in everything from full-blown opinion pieces to short bits to observations or tidbits that have escaped us and the mass media. One rule: Your name goes on your words. Call or send an email: Ross Ramsey, Editor, Texas Weekly, 512/288-6598,

The first year of the school property tax cut won't be affected by changes in the value of your property, but future cuts could be.The legislation passed during the special session cuts local school property tax rates by 11.3 percent next year, independent of what your property value does. A year later, there's another cut that brings the total cut in rates to 33 percent (if you start at $1.50, that puts you at $1). But property owners will start seeing the fluctuations in values by then. In a market with rising property values, those value increases will eat up some of the savings. In markets where values fall (there's got to be one somewhere), property owners would get a double bonus, paying lower property tax rates on properties with lower values. Actual mileage may vary. School districts are allowed to add back up to four cents to the property tax for "local enrichment," meaning they don't have to share money raised by that four cents with the state or other districts. If your rate now is $1.50, your first tax cut would be 17 cents and your second would be 33 more cents, bringing the total to $1. If your district chooses to grab that four-cent bonus, the first one will be 13 cents and the final number would be $1.04. There's another item here that's on the watch list of the lawyers for the school districts who sued the state to get these changes. The system is still set up so that increases in property values result in increases in property tax bills (assuming the rates don't change). When property values rise, that means the local share of school funding rises — not as much state money is needed to fill the cup. And if property values go up a lot over several years as they did over the last decade, that could throw the school finance system out of balance again, and put the whole thing back in court. If lawmakers decide to limit increases in taxable property values — through appraisal caps, for instance — increases in school costs would be more likely to fall on the state than on the locals, who'll have capped values and limits on how fast they can raise rates. Another way to put it: Right now, increases in property values benefit the state by funding increases in education costs at the local level. If the state limits how much money can be raised at the local level, it would have to bear the load for increases in school costs.

The Texas Freedom Network, in a new report, says the distinctions between the religious right and the Texas Republican Party have disappeared.The group set out to write about the rise of the religious right and its financial and ideological underpinnings and all of that's in the report called The Anatomy of Power: Texas and the Religious Right in 2006. The report is available free online at their website or by clicking here. (We should say here that TFN is regularly on the other side of the debate from the folks it's reporting on, and that their report reflects that point of view.) They contend the double-Rs are on the verge of getting a majority on the State Board of Education, and level particularly heavy fire on Dr. James Leininger of San Antonio — one of the Texas right's most generous financiers — and on David Barton , the lame-duck vice chairman of the Texas GOP and the president of Wallbuilders, a nonprofit that presents the nation's "forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built..." It also profiles other people, organizations, political actions committees and such that it sees as key parts of the religious right.