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Texas politics wrangles over schools, Congress over farm funding

Public School finance reform will take center stage with the Texas legislature in yet another special session early next year. Meanwhile, legislators in Washington may begin wrestling with a new farm bill.

In neither locale do observers look for any quick, easy or non-contentious solutions.

At least Texas legislators have a deadline and a mandate to get something done by June 2006, a court-ordered timetable imposed to bring the long-running impasse to a conclusion. The Texas Supreme Court has found the state’s current school finance system unconstitutional.

“Public school finance is the most important function of state governments,” says Ken Seliger, a Texas State Senator who provided a state legislative update during the recent Texas Commodity symposium in Amarillo.

Seliger said part of the state’s problem results from a shift in the Texas economy. “More than 50 percent of the current state’s revenues are not fully or mostly invested in value of industries, property, etcetera. “We’ve become a service provider,” he said. “Income comes from software development, banks and other services. Consequently, we have limited ability to fund schools.”

The only recourse in the past has been to raise what many consider “too high” property taxes.

“We don’t want to do that. We need to change the way we tax,” Seliger said. A franchise tax currently in use is inadequate. “Only one in 16 companies pay the franchise tax,” he said. “It’s no longer efficient.”

He said the legislature must develop a program that’s consistent and fair. “Currently, not everyone pays a fair share to participate in the state’s commerce.”

He said one thing that will not happen is the institution of a state income tax – be it personal or corporate. “Recent surveys of voters indicated that such a proposal would fail by 70 percent to 80 percent.”

Seliger said the recent court ruling “did not say funding for public schools was inadequate.” Some schools need more funding, good educators and high standards,” he said. “But the current system is inequitable. We don’t want to spend a lot more on one child than we do another.”

He said the smallest school district in the state operates under the same plan as the largest even though needs are significantly different. “We need a system that’s fair, equitable and broad based.”

He also said school funding should address dropout rates and college prep. “Both those areas are under-emphasized.”

He’s optimistic that the legislature will pass a bill in the next special session. “We have pressure to get it done,” he said. “People expect it to happen.”

In Washington, what some people would like to see happen is continuation of the 2002 farm legislation. “Not likely,” said congressman Mike Conaway, a Texas Representative who serves on the U.S. House Agricultural Committee.

“We hear talk about extending the law for another five years,” Conaway said. “I don’t think that will happen. The rationale is that it’s working, but I think we will look at the entire bill.”

He agrees that the 2002 legislation turned out better than most estimated. “The mechanics worked and we spent less than we expected. That’s a good sign and I will be hard pressed to support any major changes in the mechanics.”

Conaway said two factors make continuation of that law unlikely.

“In the 2002 bill, Larry Combest and Charlie Stenholm did a great job. But neither is still in Congress.” He said the bi-partisan support that Combest, a Republican and chairman of the ag committee, and Stenholm, a Democrat and ranking member, achieved allowed agricultural interests to get a needed safety net in that legislation.

“Another factor is the financial situation we face in 2006 and 2007,” Conaway said. “In 2001 and 2002, we had a budget surplus and that will certainly not be the case in 2007 and 2008. We will have a different economic environment in which to conduct negotiations.”

He said recently concluded farm bill forums, hosted by Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, pointed out significant differences in what farmers in specific regions want in a new farm law.

“In our area, farmers mostly want to keep what they have,” he said.

Conaway said Congress also needs to pass an energy bill, but offers little hope that anything substantive will come out of what he said is a deeply divided Congress. He said energy represents vulnerability for the United States with a big dependence on foreign oil.

“But the spirit of Congress is not conducive to bi-partisan cooperation,” he said. “It is hard work.”

Conaway said part of the U.S. oil dependence problem stems from low refinery capacity. “We have not built a new refinery since the 1970s,” he said. “We’ve expanded some, but have not built new ones.”

Cumbersome regulations make it “almost impossible to get permits. And it takes a lot of front-end money and then a bureaucrat may delay the proposal.”

He said energy is not a Democratic or a Republican issue, but one of national security.

Conaway also promoted changes in U.S. immigration policy to allow a “guest worker” program.

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