There was an attitude of “kumbaya” surrounding the kickoff Jan. 15 of the second four-year terms for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and the first two-year term for new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen of Angleton.
Patrick even introduced Bonnen at the inauguration, since Bonnen, elected by the House Jan. 8, had already been sworn in.
"Today is the dawn of a transformative session that will usher in a new era … for children, teachers and taxpayers," Abbott proclaimed. "This will happen because of my partners here today: Speaker Bonnen, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and all the members of the House and Senate."
Texas prosperity, Abbott said, is weakened by underperforming schools and oppressive local property taxes.
"It is clear that too many young Texans have difficulty on their own journey to prosperity," Abbott said. "Holding them back is an education system that’s not adequate to put our students on the path to excellence that they deserve ...
"Today, we must dedicate ourselves to making our schools better than they have ever been," Abbott declared.
Abbott mentioned several of the same topics in his State of the State address Feb. 5 to the Legislature, but spelled them out in more detail in his Jan. 15 inaugural address.
"This session, we must act to pay our best teachers more," Abbott said. "We must reward teachers and school districts that achieve results. We must prioritize spending in the classroom, shore up the Teacher Retirement System, and yes, the state will invest more in public education."
Plus, "reform a school finance system that robs one district to pay another" (nicknamed "Robin Hood"); get kids reading at grade level by third grade; and prepare students for college or a career.
"And, we will do this without a court order," Abbott proclaimed.
And, “The Biggie:” "I want to make this very clear," Abbott said. "We will do what no one thought possible. We will finally fix school finance."
At the same time that he and Patrick are promising teacher pay raises and redoing the state's convoluted and under-financed way to pay for schools, they also want to lower local property tax increases – the main source for financing public schools and local governments.
"Some people say we can’t afford property tax reform," Abbott said. "I say we can’t afford not to reform a system that punishes homeowners, crushes businesses and cripples our schools."
Abbott said a prosperous state's tax system "should not punish seniors who have worked their entire lives to retire in a home they have already paid off. And it shouldn’t force middle- and low-income Texans out of their neighborhoods. To fix this, Texas must limit the ability of taxing authorities to raise your property taxes. At the same time, Texas must end unfunded mandates on cities and counties. And taxpayers should be given the power to fire their property tax appraiser."
Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen support identical bills to lower the trigger point for an automatic voter referendum from the current eight percent annual increase to 2.5 percent.
Okay, that's the “kumbaya.” Now, some pushback:
Many local government officials say the Abbott-Patrick property tax lid will make it tougher for them to finance services like fire and police, plus emergencies.
Some say Abbott and Patrick and the Legislature have been shirking their constitutional responsibility on school finance, passing the buck to local property taxpayers to actually pass real bucks to schools.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner of Grand Prairie said school finance reform and better teacher pay deserved the emergency status the governor gave them.
Emergency items can be worked on immediately, rather than wait 60 days into the 140-day legislative session.
Turner also agreed property taxes were an emergency: "Property taxes are too high – but it’s because the state relies on rising property values to shirk its responsibility on public education funding."
"School finance reform that mandates the state pay more of the share of public education is the best way to reduce property taxes, not an arbitrary revenue cap that will make it more difficult for Arlington, Grand Prairie and other communities to pay for public safety and other priorities," Turner said.
Abbott also "failed to mention anything about the fact Texas still leads the nation in the number of and rate of uninsured," Turner said. "Nearly 5 million Texans are uninsured – that is unacceptable, and it holds our state back and hurts all of us."
Turner also said Texas needs "to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act," mostly paid for by the federal government.
"That would insure more than a million Texans immediately and provide much-needed funding for health-care services," Turner said.