State Rep. Jim Pitts is one of about 10 House members on both sides of the aisle who have been crafting a school finance proposal ahead of next week’s special session, which Gov. Rick Perry officially called Tuesday.
Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said the bipartisan group is working with the blessing of House leadership on a plan that would reduce property taxes while boosting the amount of money available for schools. Although that’s a familiar refrain – Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have each used similar language in touting their own proposals to replace the so-called Robin Hood system – Pitts said Tuesday that his group’s efforts represent “the No. 1 House plan.”
“We’ll propose a menu of things,” Pitts said by cell phone as he drove to Austin. “We’ll have some options to expand the sales tax. I see some options that really aren’t there, like taxes on food and medical services. I would not vote for that.
“There are options involving the business activity tax, a value-added tax and the expansion of the franchise tax, because that brings in a whole lot of money,” he added.
Video lottery gambling at racetracks, along with increases in the cigarette and liquor taxes, also are possibilities, Pitts said.
“Video lottery gambling is very high on the list, because that involves a lot of money,” he said, adding that he’s found a way to increase state revenues by about $10 billion.
“I’ve researched the lottery and will propose some ways to enhance it without adding more games,” he said. “We want to be extra conservative when it comes to the lottery, because it’s not a steady source of revenue.”
He pointed out that the new Mega Millions game is on target to generate an extra $100 million for public education, which is the amount lawmakers hoped for when they approved the change last year.
Overall, Pitts sees reason for optimism that a new system benefiting school districts of all sizes and makeups can be worked out.
“We’ve come a long way, and we’re closer than people might think,” he said. “We hope to be able to put out a plan next week that will be passed by the House and sent to the Senate.”
If that happens, he said, this summer will be especially satisfying.
“After three special sessions last year and the 140-day regular session, I’m ready to put school funding to bed,” he said. “It just requires a whole lot of time. I’m looking forward to finding an equitable solution that meets everyone’s needs and then being able to spend time with my family.”
The Legislature will convene next Tuesday, and special sessions can last up to 30 days.
“Since the implementation of the Robin Hood school finance scheme, the brightest minds in Texas have pondered a permanent solution,” Perry said in calling the session. “The time for pondering is over; the time for action is now.”
Part of the plan, a “constitutionally linked” property tax that would separate residential from commercial property tax rates, has been unpopular among lawmakers and business leaders. Under the plan, homeowners would be taxed by school districts, while businesses would be taxed by the state.
Some parts of Perry’s proposal would require a constitutional amendment. That means surviving a popular vote in November and two-thirds approval in both legislative chambers – a daunting hurdle in the current partisan atmosphere.
Perry reiterated Tuesday his assertion that his plan would cut school property taxes by $6 billion and pump $2.5 billion into public schools.
Perry called three special sessions last year on congressional redistricting. The Republican-backed redistricting plan was finally approved after bitter partisan fighting. Democrats twice fled the state in boycott to halt business in the capital.
On Tuesday, Perry warned against such partisan battles.
“There may be a temptation for partisan tensions to surface during this important special session, but partisan bitterness has no place in this debate,” Perry said. “For this noble effort to succeed, we need the undivided focus and good faith effort from Republicans and Democrats in both legislative bodies.”
Robin Hood was adapted in 1993 as a temporary fix, after a court ruled that Texas schools must be given equal opportunity to provide basic education.
But districts on both sides have been unhappy. Poor schools have benefited, but many say they need more money. Wealthy districts have complained that they have raised local property tax rates to the legal limit and say they still don’t have the money they need.
There are about 1,040 school districts in Texas, but only 139 are property wealthy.
Pitts said his job is particularly difficult because of the diverse nature of school districts he serves.
“I represent a lot of districts with different needs,” he said. “I have to weigh all their positions when I vote.”
The state has set a property tax rate cap for school districts of $1.50 per $100 in property value. Many districts are at that cap, with no way to raise additional revenue. The statewide average is $1.48, and homeowners, too, are pleading for relief from high property taxes.
Pitts added that the school-funding question is so complex that the answer is sure to displease someone.
“No matter what you do, somebody’s not going to be happy,” he said. “But if, at the end, we can find an equitable solution to generate more money for education while lowering property taxes significantly, that we’ll be successful.”
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn urged Perry to allow the Legislature to consider restoring funding to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. But, Perry said he did not anticipate opening the special session to consider anything beyond school finance.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Political advertising paid for by Jim Pitts Campaign, Sam Meade, Treasurer, 200A North Rogers, Waxahachie, TX 75165.