Huddled inside a conference room at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa near Bastrop Nov, 15, Fort Bend County elected officials and community leaders held a pow-wow with Legislators representing the county to help prepare for next year’s biennial legislative session.
County Judge Robert Hebert and the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council hosted the event. It was an opportunity for mayors, commissioners, school superintendents, chamber of commerce representatives, and others to address and hear from local state representatives and senators.
Although they were in agreement as to the top priorities for the Legislature, they often disagreed on the order of those priorities.
“My top three priorities for this session are Harvey, Harvey, and Harvey,” state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said.
With Senate District 18 taking the brunt of the damage from Hurricane Harvey last year, Kolkhorst made is clear that helping communities recover will be her priority in the 86th Legislature. That will be followed by Medicaid funding and then public school financing.
Sharing a panel discussion with her was District 13 Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. Not in attendance was District 17 Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
“I think in this 86th Legislative session the number one priority is going to be to fix school finance and to do it properly and to include pre-K and to make sure our third graders are reading at the right level,” Miles said. “I’m going to continue to fight for it as I have for the last 12 years.”
In a panel following the senators, state Reps. John Zerwas, Rick Miller, and Phil Stephenson – all Republicans who represent parts of Fort Bend County – also discussed their priorities. Absent was the lone Democrat, Ron Reynolds, who is serving time in jail on a charge of barratry (ambulance chasing).
Zerwas said his priorities are Harvey, school safety, and school finance. Miller said his issues included public education, healthcare, and taxes, in addition to child protective services and veterans issues. Stephenson didn’t give a list of priorities but instead spoke of fixing property taxes, which essentially meant restructuring the way schools are funded.
“We can fix this easy,” Stephenson said. “We have sales tax. Everybody forgets the little things; we keep saying 58 percent of our state budget is sales tax, that’s only 41 percent of the total available. Fifty-nine percent is nothing, zero, nobody’s paying it. That’s $43 billion at the existing 6.25 rate. We could take about $30 billion and put it in the schools to fix the schools.”
He said property taxes have become too high and need to come down.
“Young people can’t get into a home. They cannot get into a home because of the property taxes. The escrow is bigger than the principal and interest and it’s growing at 6 to 7 percent a year, so they can’t afford the future payments,” he said. “We don’t talk about that; we just talk about the schools. It’s a problem; it’s a tremendous problem because education’s everything. None of this school finance is going to work unless we fix the revenue generator first.”
The lion’s share of the agenda for the legislative conference was taken up by discussion of school finance. Among the topics besides finding a way to lower property taxes, was doing away with recapture, also known as Robin Hood because it takes revenues from wealthier school districts and allegedly redistributes them to poorer ones.
During a question and answer time with the senators, Fort Bend ISD Trustee Jim Rice asked what they would do to solve the financing issue.
“The state of Texas has been living off of property tax growth for the past 22 years. … Recapture payments reached $2 billion last year. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath recently testified before the Legislative Budget Board that he needs $3.5 billion less going into this next biennium because property tax growth is going to be about 6.6 percent statewide. That implies an over-reliance on property tax growth and the Legislature is going to have to work very hard to solve that problem,” he said.
“I have a chart here that shows recapture and, wow, that’s just living off of appraisals,” Kolkhorst said. “That’s really, really big. The number of school districts that are now in chapter 41 have grown exponentially over the last six years. So, we have a lot of work to do.”
Zerwas was in agreement with Kolkhorst.
“Finally, we’re going to push the property taxes down and put money back into your pocket by virtue of pushing that down. … We’re going to have to have the opportunity to talk about other ways that revenue can be provided to schools,” he said.
In a later session, Rice moderated a discussion with Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, Lamar Consolidated ISD Superintendent Thomas Randal, and Stafford MSD Superintendent Robert Bostic, in which school funding was discussed in detail.
“We’ve got to create some adequacy,” Dupre said. “When we talk about adequacy in education it means you have to put enough money into the system to meet the needs of all the students. The system we’re using today allocates money in ways that have been politically generated many, many years ago. There have been a lot of factors … including the cost of education index, and what that refers to is it costs more to education students in some communities than it does in others.
“Anything that they put together needs to recognize the differential that a small town in East Texas is not an urban, suburban environment and you’ve got to have those factors to allow those students to have true equity. That’s a term we say in education to say that means every students gets what they need; not money that’s equally distributed but it’s allocated in a way that students get, and districts get, what they need. So putting enough into the system and doing it in a way that’s equitably distributed are factors that are important,” he said.
Randle said recapture and the over reliance on property taxes is hurting more than just the school districts.
“Our public schools are the economic engine in a lot of places, so why would you want to put sugar in the tank of your economic engine?” he said.
Bostic noted that among the many problems with the current school funding formula is it doesn’t take inflation into account.
“They need to build in something that would take into account the inflation … As the economy, whether it grows or slows, there’s no real adjustment. What happens is the cost of those things still continues to grow regardless of whether the revenue does or doesn’t,” he said.
Dupre said the state must overhaul the school funding system and not continue to patch it up each session.
“We need to fix the whole system and not keep tinkering with the components,” he said. “My whole issue with the school finance system is it’s been cobbled together with clothes pins and bobby pins and pieced together with rubber bands for year, over year, over year going back to the ’60s, frankly, to bridge from one lawsuit to the next. If there’s a lawsuit, there’s a fix, if there’s another lawsuit there’s another fix. The whole system needs to be refined and redesigned so it’s not as complex, it’s not as challenging, because our taxpayers need to understand how their public schools are funded.”
A lot of suggestions have been made in recent months and years about how to make schools safer. Everything from arming teachers to installing metal detectors has been discussed. The school superintendents, however, have a different perspective.
“We need more counselors,” Randal said.
He said while metal detectors might work in small school districts, they would put students at risk in large districts where some schools have thousands of students and potentially hundreds could be exposed at a time in lines each morning trying to enter a building.
All three said they need the state to provide funds for school safety but to let local districts decide how to best administer those funds.
“It’s a matter of local control,” Dupre said. “We don’t need our legislators telling us how to solve this problem or earmarking funds for specific solutions. We need support, we need the resources, but we need the local control.”
He said the focus needs to be on the mental and emotional health of the students.
“There’s not one solution that would solve or prevent all of these shootings, so what that tells us is that we have to pull back to the preventive, we’ve got to come back to the solutions and that is getting kids healthy and having assessment systems in place to identify the threat that a student may consider harming himself or somebody else,” he said. “That’s where we’ve got to put our resources and we need the state to support us in that. We don’t want to be in the response mode, we want to be in the preventative mode.”
“This is all a mental health issue,” said Zerwas, who is a medical doctor. “This is where, ultimately, the problem is and there are existing programs and other programs that I’ve been educated about that are going to be very helpful as school districts start to address this issue… But we need to make sure, as a state, that we don’t dictate how you’re going to create a safe school environment. But we had better put the money out there for you to use and use in a way that you think is most beneficial.”
The state is mandated to manage its share of Medicaid funding, which is the largest and fastest growing segment of the budget.
“If we don’t find a way to control the biggest portion of our budget that is growing at a rate that is almost unsustainable, which is Medicaid … which is the biggest shortfall, $2.5 billion in Medicaid, we are not ever going to have enough money,” Kolkhorst said.
“As the senators have noted, we’ve created a $2.5 billion hole in Medicaid,” Zerwas said. “That’s not an unusual effort by us to balance the budget, in fact, it’s more the norm. I do think this is one of the larger shortfalls we’ve created in the budget.”
The legislators agreed that funding for Harvey recovery is going to be important. Most all of them were favorable to a proposal floated earlier by Joe B. Allen, the retired managing partner at Allen Boone Humphries Robinson LLP, who came out of retirement to bring his extensive expertise in water and drainage systems to help the state with recovery from Hurricane Harvey. He proposes using local funds to match state funds to help match federal funds. He recommends taking $3 billion out of the state’s rainy day fund to help provide grants to recovering communities that provide a 25 percent match.
Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed a 2.5 percent property tax revenue cap, which nearly everyone in the room opposed.
“Two and a half percent, I’m kind of scratching my head, I’m not sure where that number came from. It was never talked about in the session,” Kolkhorst said.
“How can we have a 2.5 percent property tax cap without finding an additional revenue stream?” asked Rice.
It was the hot topic on a panel of mayors from across the county, all of whom said it would have detrimental impacts on their budgets. Hebert, who is leaving office after losing his election earlier this month, also spoke against it. So did the school superintendents.
“We would lose about $25 million annually and maybe a little more than that,” Dupre said.
“We would be impacted in a similar manner if they put a cap on it,” Randle said. “It would cause us to have to make some very serious decisions about personnel and a lot of services that we currently provide.”
At the end of the retreat, Jeff Wiley, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council, felt the event led to a healthy discussion that will help guide priorities for the county when the Legislature meets in January.
“This initiative is about quality growth,” he said. “We know growth is coming to Fort Bend County, the question is, what kind of growth will it be and how will it be channeled to the benefit of the community? That’s what this legislative conference is all about. It’s to express from the school districts to the cities to the county to the quality growth and development of the county; how we do that best and keep what has made Fort Bend County continue in the future… Our legislators understand from this session what our interests are and why we have those interests and that helps us to engage them when the legislative sessions starts.”