If one were looking for a moral theme for the legislative session that convened last week, it would not be bathroom bills nor so-called sanctuary cities. It would be Texas children.
Specifically, the welfare of children in the state’s beleaguered foster care system and the more than 5 million children attending public schools. Those are the crisis points. And lawmakers would be wise not to delay action in fixing those systems, even as the Legislature faces one of its most challenging budgets in recent times.
State leaders shouldn’t be dissuaded from taking action on those problems despite the fact that state revenues are down by $2.8 billion. Instead, they should look to the Economic Stabilization Fund, also called the rainy day fund, to help with some services.
If ever there were an emergency that required tapping into the fund, the welfare of Texas children certainly qualifies.
It is true that legislators will have less general revenue to spend during the 85th session. Comptroller Glenn Hegar last week estimated that the state would have $104.9 billion to spend over the next biennial. That estimate determines how much money lawmakers can spend on schools, higher education, health, transportation, public safety and other services in the 2018-19 budget. That’s 2.6 percent below the current two-year budget’s revenue estimate of $107.7 billion.
In preparation for that, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus in June instructed most state agencies to prepare for 4 percent budget cuts.
The drop in funding stems from several factors, including slumping fossil fuel prices that impact state sales tax revenue. But fiscal decisions made during the 2015 legislative session also shrunk the revenue pie. While we agreed with the state’s decision — as well as the voters’ — to pass Proposition 7, which will steer $4.7 billion to the State Highway Fund, we disagree with the 25-percent cut lawmakers made to the franchise tax on Texas businesses. The latter will result in a drop of 2.4 percent in franchise taxes coming to the state in 2018-19 — money sorely needed now.
The news isn’t all bad.
Hegar also reported that the rainy day fund is currently $10.2 billion deep and will grow to $11.9 billion by the end of the 2018-19 budget if left untouched. It’s also worth noting that its current balance still exceeds the $7.5 billion minimum balance set for 2018-19 — more than plenty to do a whole lot of good for Texas children in crisis and financially strapped public schools.
The most urgent, possibly life-threatening crisis facing children exists at Child Protective Services.
We were encouraged by the state’s move in December to hire 800 new CPS employees and award emergency pay raises to more than 6,000 front-line workers to address high turnover rates. Still, legislators will need to dig deeper if they intend to help Abbot deliver on his 2015 promise to overhaul the agency and decrease the number of child deaths to zero. To reach that goal, more work is needed.
Data obtained through an open records request by the Dallas Morning News shows that more Texas children died of abuse and neglect since Abbott took office. In fiscal year 2016, at least 202 Texas children died because of maltreatment, compared with 173 the year before. The 2016 totals did not include 123 fatalities still under state review.
Recommendations by court-appointed special masters should serve as tools to make the much-needed changes to protect Texas’ most vulnerable children. On a similar note, lawmakers should look to repeal cuts — $150 million in state money worth — made to therapy services for disabled children.
Another crisis that demands the attention of lawmakers is the school finance system. No, diverting public dollars to private schools is not a solution. School choice or voucher programs would serve only a few and worsen the system for the vast majority of children who remain in public schools.
The problem legislators must concentrate on is the system’s outdated, unfair dependence on local property taxes, which now make up 48 percent of total public education funding. Local taxpayers – particularly in districts such as Austin, Eanes, Lake Travis, Georgetown and Marble Falls — are taking a financial beating.
By contrast, the state’s share has shrunk to 41.4 percent for this school year, with the federal government providing the remaining 10.6 percent.
And if lawmakers did their jobs in addressing the public school funding system, it would render real tax relief for Texas taxpayers, who also are feeling a financial crunch from soaring school property taxes.
Legislators also should look into the special education crisis. A Houston Chronicle investigation showed that state efforts to limit the number of students receiving special education service has saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars by denying vital support to children who need those services. It is unacceptable that more funding has not been reserved to better identify students who need services.
Unfortunately, the public has seen key lawmakers give priority to bathroom bills and legislation aimed at curbing local control. We urge lawmakers to prioritize Texas children.