Reworking the state’s funding for public education and “reforming” property taxes — what you call it when you’re trying to limit the growth of a tax instead of actually reducing taxpayers’ bills — are hard things to do. They are not high-reward targets, though — not like real tax cuts or a solid promise that schools will improve.
There’s no promise of champagne celebrations at the end of this session. This is the kind of work shift that ends with a stamp from a time clock.
This is important work, though. The formulas that determine which school gets how much money to educate which children is a centerpiece of state government. Property taxes are, maybe, the most hated of taxes in Texas. Leashing them has proven elusive; cutting them — and making the cuts stick — is beyond the power of the state government. It’s been tried. It didn’t work.
One potential upside is the talk of higher pay for teachers. Some, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, want an across-the-board raise for public school teachers. Others — you’re more likely to hear this from the House — would base some or all of the pay increases on teacher performance. Abbott nodded to each in his speech, saying, “We must pay our teachers more,” and adding detail a moment later: “We must provide incentives to put effective teachers in the schools and classrooms where they are needed the most. And we must create a pathway for the best teachers to earn a six-figure salary.”
Of the first three ideas on the plate, teacher pay is the one that might merit a parade if lawmakers get it done.
The property tax changes pit the state against the local school boards, county commissioners and city councils that set property tax rates and — they would argue — answer to voters when they do so.
And the school finance fix, while desperately needed, is the kind of behind-the-wall repair that makes your house better without being particularly visible. Improved plumbing is essential, but it’s boring; so it is with things like school finance reform.
The biggest news of the day was the absence of something new. No snark intended. If you’re trying to keep an organization on its mission — especially if that’s not a mission of real passion — you have to avoid distractions. Abbott did that. There were no 90-degree turns in this address, no political candy to pull state representatives and senators away from the work at hand.
Abbott had the opportunity to say something about recent headlines over the state’s voter rolls — an issue that has blown up on his secretary of state over the last 10 days but that retains some punch with those who believe the state has a problem with voter security. The Capitol crowd was speculating about the issue throughout the weekend before this State of the State speech.
But something like that would have been the kind of right-angled turn that wrecks what the governor hopes will be a harmonious mind-your-chores legislative session.
He had other things on his plate, to be sure. School safety was there, with an emphasis on mental health services and no mention of new firearms laws. Disaster response got the governor’s “emergency issues” stamp, allowing lawmakers to work on it immediately. Abbott wants lawmakers to clear the huge backlog of rape kits — evidence taken after sexual assaults that sits on warehouse shelves awaiting analysis. Another item on his wish list: having the state provide more mental health and other services to veterans.
He skipped talking about previous State of the State topics like expanded prekindergarten in Texas schools, school choice, a convention of states to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, and stricter campaign and government ethics laws. He even joked about working with a frenemy — state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio — to revive the annual football rivalry between the Aggies and the Longhorns.
“Texas was built on bold ideas,” Abbott said. But he was careful not to add to the ideas already on the table.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/02/05/state-of-the-state-address-short-on-surprises-long-on-collaboration/.
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