Lies, Damned Lies, and State Budgets: The Fictional World of Texas Lawmakers

by Dr. Jerry Burkett
Originally Published: March 4, 2012

Texas lawmakers are living in a fictional world. A fictional world of balanced budgets, increased funding to education, and a belief that cuts without increasing revenue will solve all of our state’s problems. In the “real world,” though, parents, educators, and community members are concerned about the impact of the $5.6 billion in cuts to education during the last legislative session. The collective delusions of lawmakers leads to the typical reply that, “we gave more money to education this session than in the last in terms of real dollars.”

Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton) recently joined in chorusing the rhetoric of this fictional world. Crownover’s campaign website stated in January 2012: “Most importantly, we balanced the state’s budget with the first overall decrease in state spending in 50 years. We also were able to increase state spending on Education by $1.6 Billion even in the face of the worst recession in decades.”

However, in a recent article by the Lewisville Texan that challenged Representative Crownover on her claims, the Texan was unable to find any fiscal evidence of an increase.

“The only increase we were able to find was a $1.6 billion increase in non-stimulus FEDERAL funding for education. We looked at total education, public education, federal funding, federal stimulus funding, and state funding. We compared current to past appropriations, and current to past budget and estimated. In no way that we saw, did state funding for education increase at all.”

As such, Rep. Crownover was called a “liar” by Lewisville Texan and was rated “Pants on Fire” by PoltiFact Texas. Perhaps a small dose of reality and a better understanding of the money trail that is school finance will help lawmakers like Crownover understand what happens outside of their fantasy world. The state legislature was able to fund the Foundation School Program with “more” money during the 82nd session than in the 81st in terms of “real dollars.” However, the statements you are not hearing from Crownover and others candidates is that public education took a $4 billion cut over the next two years in other areas of the educational budget.

So, how is it possible to have a cut with more funding? Several reasons…

  • First, the legislature failed to fund for student enrollment growth in the state. Nearly 78,000 new students per year will enter our schools this budget cycle (including my own son) but the state legislature did not allocate funds for these students. So, the cute little kindergartners with the bright, shining faces and the students of transplants new to the state that came for work because “Texas is open for business,” will be surprised to find that the state has ignored the education of their children. These kids were unfunded by the state. This comes at a cost of around $2.2 billion.Since funding problems (mostly due to a structural tax deficit) are not uncommon to Austin, the 81st legislature was able to skirt by using federal stimulus dollars to fund enrollment growth from 2008-2010. Of course, the 82nd legislature had an opportunity to allocate funding for these new students when Senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) correctly pointed out in her now famous filibuster that the state of Texas’ budget did not fund new students “for the first time ever.” Unfortunately, Senator Davis’ calls for funding enrollment growth ultimately went unheeded in the special session.
  • Second, public education took a $2.3 billion cut in funding from accounting tricks and gimmicks. Now, the fictional world of Texas’ “balanced” budget in Texas and the smoke and mirrors legislators use to give this appearance is legendary. However, the 82nd legislature rolled out some new tricks that directly impacted school funding. The legislature chose to delay payments to school districts over a period of time to save on interest and clear balance sheets to meet the state’s required “balanced” budget amendment. These payments were largely delayed into 2014, essentially leaving the headache to another legislative session to figure out.
  • In addition, school districts funding formulas laws were changed to allow the state to manipulate the funding stream that goes directly to local school districts. These funds are used to hire teachers, purchase school supplies, and equipment including football helmets and uniforms.
  • Lastly, school districts lost $1.4 billion in funding for programs outside of the foundation school program. Funding for programs for teacher incentive pay, Pre-K programs and dropout prevention were cut.

The budgeting tricks and fictional calculations used are quite confusing, even to members of the House Appropriations Committee (a committee that Rep. Crownover is a member). During a presentation on public school funding to the House Appropriations Committee meeting on February 21, 2012 members of the committee were asking for clarification on the overall decrease to public school funding with a general revenue decrease.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zMuIkjy2oo]

After discussion regarding cuts to programs like the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), the Texas Education Agency (TEA), and public education as a whole, Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) sought clarification from the chairman of the committee

“Did we not fund $3 billion more?” asked Rep. Riddle.

Riddle understood the per student funding to be less because there were more students but was insistent that that the appropriations committee did indeed fund education with more money. She referred to a bill that she co-authored with appropriations chairman Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) to increase funding back in 2009. That increase used Rainy Day Funds to make up for a shortfall in the previous session (2007).

Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston) stated that Riddle was living in a fictional world and she was not taking into consideration contractual obligations to TRS, lost TEA grants, and that she had a narrow view that public education is only equal to the Foundation School Program.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) helped to clarify the issue with the presenter.

Villarreal: “It is incorrect to say that the state increased GR for education.”

Presenter: “What are you defining as education?”

{laughter}

Villarreal: “Public schools, the teachers, the retirees.”

Presenter: “That is correct.”

While the fact that our elected officials don’t have a clear definition of “education,” is frightening in and of itself; what’s even more disturbing is that through their attempts at subterfuge and chicanery many have seemingly confused themselves! Our representatives have become so distracted by their own hype, political rhetoric, and creative spin that they are completely out of touch with the impact their real cuts had on school districts and students.

Perhaps a visit to their local school district will help pull them out of the fictional world in which they “increased” educational funding. (This is also a suggestion that I extend to everyone statewide.)

Perhaps Rep. Crownover should visit a local Denton elementary school on the first day of school and personally explain to the kindergarteners and other new students why they state of Texas isn’t funding their education, despite the fact that she and her colleagues in the 82nd “increased” school funding.

Perhaps lawmakers should visit their local high schools to see classes nearing 40 students. They might also see elementary school classrooms that don’t have enough desks to seat students in overcrowded classrooms. (Since more ISDs have filed for class size waivers this year than at any other time, I’m certain they could find these examples even in their own home districts.)

Perhaps they could visit one of the school districts that eliminated student bussing services. I’m certain that some of the commuters that now deal with increased traffic in those localities would enjoy explaining the realities of their increased commute time and crowded roadways to their legislator.

It’s time for the legislators to put aside their spin machines, pull themselves out of the fictional world that Austin promotes, and join us in the real world. Speak to your constituents about how that “increased funding” in education has been working out for them.

Legislators, you can’t hide from the real world for long. On Friday, March 2, a joint interim committee was appointed to study public school finance. This committee will conduct a comprehensive study of the public education finance structure and made recommendations for the 83rd legislature when it comes into session in January 2013. Perhaps then, our lawmakers will gain clarity about complicated system of funding our schools.

When you become so caught up in the fantasy of politics that you lose sight of what’s happening to Texans in the real world, you’ve likely ceased serving your purpose and your constituents. Perhaps you should consider coming home to the “real world.”

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