All eyes on public schools as legislative session begins
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
With the initial pomp and circumstance of the beginning of a new legislative session in the rearview mirror, all eyes – even those of city leaders – are focused on what the state will do with public school finance.
Liberty Hill City Administrator Greg Boatright knows changes could be coming in a number of areas that would impact the city, but his big question is also about public school finance.
“What everybody is hopeful of this session is that they will finally focus on the gorilla in the room and that is school finance,” Boatright said at Monday’s City Council meeting. “It’s not city, it’s not county, it is the $1.50 rate that is out there associated with our school districts.”
The focus on school finance, though, doesn’t take away what Boatright sees as pressure on local government.
“As the noose tightens on school finance the trickle down effect is going to be that we are going to suffer most of all because it is not popular to talk about taking money from school kids,” he said. “So they’re going to look to counties and cities to use as the whipping posts to limit powers so they can say ‘look at what we’ve done about property tax’, while all the while not addressing what is their duty.”
New House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has said he plans to make public school finance the top priority of this session.
Boatright hopes that is true.
“If the Speaker is willing to do it and forces it on the Senate, then (Dan) Patrick has to face it and maybe something will get done,” he said. “But the end result is we will be negatively impacted because it is all lumped together as an ad valorem tax issue.”
Because it has been at the forefront among legislative issues so long and is so complicated, Boatright is not sure yet he believes real change is coming.
“Nobody is brave enough to do it because a lot of hard decisions will have to be made,” he said. “You can’t have school districts that cover a very limited amount of area issuing over a billion dollars in debt and expecting the result to be good. It becomes so top-heavy on infrastructure that the quality of education portion gets lost.”
He also believes the state benefits financially from the current system in ways most people don’t think about.
“The school finance situation right now is a benefit to the state because all of that Robin Hood money flows through the state and back out,” Boatright said. “A Cliff Note to the school funding issue is the state makes money off that because they are the distributor of those funds and a lot of times those funds will sit in state coffers and there is interest to be gained.”
Regardless of what changes come to public school finance in Texas, there is the expectation it will impact cities when it comes to taxing.
“The unintentional result of what the Legislature is going to do is they’re going to pick on us because they’re trying to roll out of the session saying they reduced taxes,” Boatright said.
One expected change during this session is the lowering of the tax increase percentage that would trigger a rollback from 8 percent to 4 percent.
“They’ve chipped away at it the last three sessions,” he said. “I think this may be the session where they get that cap reduced. I think if they do that they will be satisfied within their ranks to say they did something about it. But that won’t be the last thing.”
If the percentage is cut in half, Boatright doesn’t believe it will have an immediate impact on Liberty Hill due to the size of the city.
“Where we’re at right now it is not as huge an impact for us as if we were say the size of Leander,” he said. “Because you have a much more broad base of citizens that are involved in the election process in a place like Leander.”
With continued growth, the need is not there to bump the tax rate up to rollback levels, though with economic changes that could change as well and the 4 percent cap could have an impact.
“The Council has done a good job of not allowing the rollback rate to influence what they believe needs to be done for our city,” Boatright said. “Once you get into a downturn, that changes things some. As long as people are not strapped the overall tax rate is not really an issue, but when things tighten up it comes to the forefront real quick.”
New rules could be coming about annexation for cities, but this early in the session Boatright said it is difficult to tell what may happen.
“I don’t know how far it will get, because that is one of the things that the Texas Municipal League and the cities have really banded together on to fight because it takes away their ability to control their growth and protect their borders,” Boatright said.
The anticipated push would be to mandate an election for any annexation effort by a city.
Another highlighted issue due to the recent fight between cities and the state over the use of plastic bags is what exactly local control means.
“What it boils down to is that you have a lobby system that outranks the citizenry,” Boatright said. “When you have these special interest groups down there that spend millions of dollars each session on making sure their interest is at the forefront of discussions that go on then we lose.”
Boatright said what local citizens want should be the focus.
“If a county government or local government’s citizens have the ability to vote for something then that’s the way it should be,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that the Legislature should be able to override what the local people decide for the community, unless it is breaking state law.”