The Week in the Rearview Mirror

School finance in Texas is on trial, and this week a representative of a national polling firm detailed his company’s results of a survey conducted in the summer. The poll showed that Texans are generally in favor of tax increases that benefit schools, but that if they live in a property wealthy district, where some of those funds are subject to recapture by the state, the amount of support drops dramatically. In one county, Calhoun, almost 90 percent of those polled refused to support a tax rate hike because of the rule that requires so-called property rich districts to remit money back to the state to be sent to poorer districts. Since voters must approve tax rate hikes proposed by their districts, school officials testified that this obstacle to funding is affecting their operations and budgeting.

The last time the federal government offered funds for education, the state of Texas, led by Gov. Rick Perry, declined to apply for the Race to the Top program. But federal authorities modified the program, allowing individual districts to apply, and this time 117 Texas districts and charter schools did just that. Of those, three charter schools and seven school districts are on the list of 61 finalists and are competing for four-year grants that range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on population. Schools qualified to apply if their populations included at least 40 percent low-income students, and unlike last time, they did not have to adopt common core curriculum standards, a sticking point for Perry. The governor continues to object to the program, on the grounds that schools do not need the burden of additional federal standards and guidelines.

On her way out the door, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has co-sponsored a measure on immigration with another outgoing GOP senator, Jon Kyl of Arizona. Dubbed the ACHIEVE Act, it presents a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act. The bill would provide children brought into the country illegally an opportunity to go to school, join the military and subsequently apply for work and permanent visas. The legislation won't likely see the light of day in the lame-duck session, but supporters hope it will be reintroduced when the new Congress convenes in January, and Hutchison was quick to point out that she has briefed her successor, Ted Cruz, on the details of the bill.

Texas has 10 percent of the nation’s poor families, and the poverty level has only increased during the recession. But the number of families receiving cash assistance has dropped significantly following reforms to the program made in the mid-1990s and legislative redirecting of block grant funds. Eligibility for the program is based on the federal poverty line, and in Texas that line means a family of three must earn less than $401 per month to qualify. The state receives a block grant from the federal government, but only spends about 16 percent of that money on cash assistance. That translates to only six in 100 families receiving temporary assistance.

Following the election, stores are reporting another rush of gun and ammunition sales mirroring post-election 2008 sales. Fears of an Obama administration restriction on guns prompted the rush and resulted in shortages of products in 2008. Store owners report that sales have doubled since this time last year. And Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, plans to again introduce a bill that would allow Texans to openly carry their guns. His 2011 bill died in committee. 

The Texas River Cities initiative got a boost from the Department of Energy when it announced a $500,000 grant from the agency. The money will be used to support an electric vehicle corridor from Austin to San Antonio, promoting infrastructure to support electric vehicle traffic. Participating electricity providers and city utilities hope to provide more charging stations and encourage widespread use of the vehicles in the Central Texas area. 

Incomes in the Permian Basin continue to rise, and a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report shows that Midland has the second-highest per capita income in the country. Average income for residents of the city rose by almost 12 percent and, at $65,173, ranked second only to Bridgeport, Conn.’s $78,504. The 11.9 percent gain in 2011 was actually less than the previous year’s jump of 12.9 percent. 

An El Paso group dedicated to preserving a city landmark got token support, but not financial commitment, from the El Paso City Council. The Save the Stacks group is trying to preserve Asarco smokestacks, which are no longer in use. The City Council agreed to support the preservation of the smokestacks, but refused to commit any city funds to the project. An Asarco trustee has presented the group with a proposal that would have cost the city $14 million to repair, maintain and preserve the smokestacks, and now that the city has declined to provide funds, the group must come up with an alternative plan before February 2013, when the smokestacks are set for demolition.