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Voters will determine road funding, courts will decide education finance

By Michael Sudhalter

VoteThe future funding of roads and schools in Texas hangs in the balance, but they will be decided in different ways.

Texas voters will get the opportunity to choose whether they’d like to pass Proposition 1, which will allow revenue from the oil & natural gas production tax to be transferred to the State Highway Fund for construction, maintenance and the purchase of right of way for public roads. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling next year in a School Finance case – Fort Bend ISD plaintiffs v. The State of Texas.

In August, a Travis County judge ruled for the second time that the state’s current finance system violates the Texas Constitution by not “suitably, adequately, or equitably providing the resources necessary to give all students a real opportunity to meet the state’s rising standards.”

The Texas Attorney General’s office appealed the decision on Sept. 26 and is expected to issue a brief on why it is filing an appeal, according to a media relations representative from that office.

David Thompson, an attorney for the Fort Bend ISD plaintiff group, expects the Texas Supreme Court to make a ruling later this month, or next, with a response by the state legislature in the spring of 2016.

He said it’s possible the governor may call a special session to address School Finance.

“Our argument is it’s not good enough, and the state’s argument is ‘we’re doing good enough’,” Thompson said.

The Star will spotlight some of the upcoming local elections over the next three weeks. Early voting in Fort Bend County runs from Oct. 20-Oct. 31, and Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Road funding

The Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce has come out strongly in favor of Proposition 1, issuing a statement saying that new road infrastructure is necessary to keep up with the growing population.

“Over the past 25 years, the state’s population has increased by 57 percent, whereas road capacity has only increased 8 percent,” according to the Chamber statement. “Traditional funding sources such as the vehicle gas tax and registration fees have lost a fair a amount of buying power due to inflation and not being increased in decades. The proposed constitutional amendment is the first step towards fully funding our road infrastructure system.”

As it stands now, 75 percent of the oil & natural gas production tax goes into the Rainy Day Fund, which the state uses to address revenue shortfalls, and the other 25 percent goes into the general revenue fund.

The 25%, which goes into the general revenue for education funding, wouldn’t be affected by Prop 1.

If the voters approve Prop 1, the state legislature will determine how much of taxes allocated to the Rainy Day Fund would go into the State Highway Fund instead.

According to the Chamber, that could mean $1.4 billion per year for the State Highway Fund.

“For a long time the state estimates it needs $5 billion per year to begin to adequately meet the need to maintain current roads and for additional road capacity,”  said Alan Clark, director of Transportation Planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “How much is available over time depends on the Rainy Day Fund. As long as anything that generates oil & gas revenue will increase the Rainy Day Fund.”

Clark said specific road construction won’t be determined until after Prop 1 passes, but possible road projects could include the widening of U.S. 90A, between Hwy. 6 and Richmond/Rosenberg and the widening of U.S. Hwy. 59 from Richmond/Rosenberg to the Wharton County Line

Not everyone agrees with approving Prop 1.

Missouri City resident Kris Allfrey said it’s passage would put too much power in the hands of the Texas Department of Transportation, and he doesn’t believe they’ve used many of their funds wisely in the past.

Houston resident Barry Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, contends that commuters will adjust to the roads they drive on, move closer to their job or take a job closer to their home.

“(Prop 1’s defeat) will lead to fewer contracts for new road construction and a shrunken highway lobby, one of the pillars of the Texas establishment,” Klein said in his opposition to Prop 1.

School finance

With regards to the School Finance court case, Thompson compared the status quo to a road construction project in which no cost estimate was produced.

Thompson said the state legislature continues to raise standards and requirements, such as House Bill 5, but doesn’t provide the funding or resources to make it a reality.

Thompson said a third of Texas high school students won’t be able to graduate because they can’t pass a required state exam.

The name of the plaintiff group may be Fort Bend ISD, but it’s actually a collection of 84 Texas school districts that represent 1.8 million students.

In August, John Dietz – a judge in Travis County – ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and also ordered the state to pay the legal fees for the Fort Bend ISD plaintiffs group at $130,000. With the appeal going to the state Supreme Court, that figure could increase.

In addition to federal funds, schools are funded by local property tax.

The state abolished state property tax in the 1970s. Dietz ruled that since school districts don’t have meaningful discretion over local property tax, the current finance system operates a de facto state property tax, which goes against the Texas Constitution.

Property values have increased across the state, which has helped the funding of public schools, but three years ago, school funding was cut due to a budget shortfall.

Some of those funds were restored last year when property values increased.

Thompson said in theory, the money from the General Revenue Fund should make up the shortfall of whatever local property taxes can’t finance, but that doesn’t always happen.

High property values in one area won’t equal more funding for the local schools, said Thompson.

“We need an equitable system where school districts will be treated fairly,” Thompson said. “And local school boards should have more discretion.”

The Star will spotlight some of the upcoming local elections over the next three weeks. Early voting in Fort Bend County runs from Oct. 20-Oct. 31, and Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

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