Tuesday, August 21, 2012

All in the same boat

For many years property taxes have been a source of conversation and consternation in Texas. Even though overall Texas ranks among the lowest taxing states of the union, property tax remains a sore spot with almost all citizens. In Texas, property taxes have risen from near the lowest in the United States in the mid-1950's to among the top 3-4 in the U.S. today.

Property tax is the primary way Texans support public education. In all, property taxes levied in the various districts and counties throughout the state amount to a little over $60 billion. A few frustrated members of the Legislature have suggested we abolish the property tax to support education and replace it with an increased sales tax.  The problem with this is that in order to replace the money not raised by ad valorem taxes, the required increase in the sales tax would be upward of 15% on each item you purchase. Most exemptions, such as diapers and groceries, would be eliminated.  Some, mainly property owners, argue this would be preferable to the current system, which in effect taxes people repeatedly on their homes and businesses. Again, the problem with this system is that a sales tax is regressive and hits those on limited incomes much harder than those with large incomes.

The ad valorem tax used to support public education has been under attack in the court system since the 1960's, beginning with the Edgewood case filed in federal court. The federal appellant court, including the Supreme Court, ruled not that the tax system was fair, but that it was not so unfair that it had reached the point of unconstitutionality. The appellant courts followed with a warning that failure to address the problem could very likely involve federal court intervention in the future.

The Edgewood case in the federal system was followed by a case reaching the Texas Supreme Court in which the system of funding education was deemed to have run afoul of the Texas Constitution; specifically, the provision which required the state to offer all citizens a quality or decent education.  The basic problem with the tax is that it unfairly treats and punishes children who have the misfortune to live with their parents in poor districts or counties. The current system provides unbalanced amounts available to educate children. 

As an example, citizens of school districts like Mount Belvieu enjoy supporting a quality system of education at a relatively low tax rate because they are fortunate enough to have salt domes within the boundaries of the district filled with natural gas which periodically can be taxed. The gas is not produced in the district, but simply is taxed as it passes through the storage in the district on its way primarily to the Northeastern part of the United States. Other districts of low property wealth force citizens to pay a higher tax rate and devote a greater effort to support public education, resulting in even lower amounts available to deliver education to their children. In short, the current system is, was and probably will be unfair.

A simple solution, unworkable in Texas, is to support public education with an income tax.  It is not likely the people of Texas will in the near future vote for a constitutional amendment which allows an income tax, even though it would totally replace the ad valorem tax on their homes and businesses.

There is another solution which would absolutely resolve the inequity of the current property tax system. As Chairman of the Senate Education Committee I proposed it; Ann Richards flirted with it very briefly. Sadly, it was grossly misunderstood by the press who failed to note in their reports that the proposed tax was not to be added to the local tax, but to replace it. As a result, the idea was quickly rejected by Governor Ann Richards.

The proposal would have preserved only local taxes dedicated to paying off bonded indebtedness. Thereafter, a statewide tax at a uniform rate per $100 valuation would have been levied on all property within the state. Then money would have been placed in the state treasury and allocated to each district based on the number of pupils. At the time of my proposal, a dollar per $100 tax rate would have raised slightly more than the differing local tax rates. And, it would have lowered the tax rate for half of the taxpayers in the state.

Such a system would end forever the lawsuits alleging the system of raising taxes and the allocation of state funds for education as unfair.

I have long believed sailboat racing among sailors with the same class vessels is the fairest sporting competition existing today. All of the sailors have to have the same amount of wind, use relatively the same amount of sails, and maneuver the same kind of boat. Thus the winning boat depends primarily on the skill of those who operate it. The same should be true of school districts throughout Texas. If every district had the same resources available per student, Texans would quickly learn which districts make efficient use of their money and produce the right result for our children. Maybe it is time for all taxpayers in all school districts in this state to get in the same boat.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Little in Common

It seems to me that come election time people would give some thought to what impact electing one party or one person or the other would have on the things most important to them. Of course, usually, family comes first, but tied to the family is how one earns a living to provide for the necessities of a family. I am constantly amazed at how easily people are distracted by collateral issues and seem to forget about voting for their own interests or selecting candidates with whom they have much in common. For example:

I have noticed recent articles in one of the local papers written by a retired school teacher.  He seems to be an intelligent fellow. His articles are certainly well written, but it also comes through loud and clear that he intends to vote against our current president.  Most of the reasons appear to me to come from blogs or various sources of political rhetoric. What boggles my mind is how an intelligent, well educated, retired teacher could give serious thought to casting his lot with the candidate of a party with a state platform that demeans and opposes the teaching of higher order of thinking, that condones cutting public education funding by 4 billion dollars, that believes there is too much money being spent on education now, and that is generally anti-science.

I suppose the retired teacher is no worse than the hourly wage earner who provides for his family through the sweat of his brow and yet who would vote for a party that reveres the wealthy to the extent that money making money is treated far better than a worker making money. This is the same party that believes a good business climate is one in which wages are suppressed, that the ability of workers to organize is bad business, and that injured workers ought to stop their whining and should just live with their injuries instead of thinking about suing their employers or other wrongdoers.

I’m also somewhat chagrined at seniors who would vote for the party that wants to abolish Medicare as we know it and curtail Social Security.

Families and health care.
As I grow older, I become more and more concerned about health issues. I hear almost daily some ordinary working stiff or retired person make disparaging remarks about the Affordable Care Act, generally referred to in a snide way as “Obamacare.” It still is amazing the average Joe does not recognize the difference between his family situation and that of congressmen who have government-provided Cadillac medical insurance, or rich folks like Mitt Romney who never give a second thought to whether or not they can provide adequate medical care to members of their family even if stricken with a catastrophic illness such as cancer, kidney failure or similar ailments. Families being driven to bankruptcy on a daily basis for lack of being able to afford or obtain adequate health care. Even worse, there are little children who die every day, particularly in states like Texas, because they do not have access to adequate health care. Most folks who are not rich seem to forget that they are one step, or one disease, away from total disaster for themselves and their families unless the health care problem is addressed. The conservative response to let the market handle the situation is a phony and false promise. Who ever heard of the insurance industry figuring out how to take care of a bunch of sick people? It is their gain to insure those who do not become sick and those who will never make a claim against them. Money and profit drive the private sector, not concern for the sick or the lame.

On another front, you may recall that many veterans fell for the “Swift Boat” lie --a megabillionaire-funded smear of a real combat veteran who ran for president. Now it seems these same liars are trying to peddle as a real American hero a fellow who dodged military service during the Vietnam War in order to peddle a bike through France.  

People with Swiss bank accounts.
I will readily confess my bias, but it doesn’t take me long to figure out I have little in common with a fellow who has a Swiss bank account.

Friday, August 10, 2012

On Falkenberg's Article

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle written by Lisa Falkenberg ["Hard for Lone Star to shine at bottom of heap"--Friday, July 20, 2012] caught my attention.   Her article centered on the pride felt and expressed by most of us Texans. She pointed out that unfortunately, in spite of our Texan bravado, Texas leads the nation in too many of the wrong things. Her article went on to point out we had been recently rated as the worst state in the union for delivery of health care. Other studies have ranked us at the bottom, or near the bottom, in education and social services; third from the bottom in low paying jobs and in the bottom one or two states in the number of adults with even high school diplomas.

We clearly have shirked our duty when it comes to funding education or providing accessible health care for one-fourth of our population. We also are among the leaders of states whose employers fail to provide workers’ compensation for those who toil to deliver us goods and services. We even rank near the bottom--or the top, depending on how you view it--on the number of hungry children who live without adequate sustenance.

Of even greater interest to me were the responsive letters from readers to the Falkenberg article.  A majority of the letters took Falkenberg to task for denigrating Texas--for being so negative about our wonderful state. Many of them said if she really thought so poorly of Texas, she should find another state in which to live; and, if workers didn’t like low wages, they should find a better job in some other state. Few, if any, of the letters to the editor offered any solution either to sick or hungry children in the state or to the fact our uneducated population is increasing on a daily basis.

It occurs to me that, even more important, the writers of these letters have completely overlooked the source of these distressing facts. This is all indicative of our state's leadership reflecting unconcern about those less fortunate than many of us, and about what has helped bring about this situation. Obviously, workers stuck in minimum wage jobs do not have the wherewithal to find or to travel to better paying jobs in another state. This is particularly true if they have a second-rate education, or no education, because of Texas’ unconcern about quality and access to education. These unpleasant statistics are simply a statement on how we in Texas are not following the dictates of most religious teachings of organizations to which most Texans claim they ascribe. Texas’ vaunted “rugged individualism” should not show itself as simple lack of concern for our fellow man, but we should treat the less fortunate in the compassionate manner most of us claim we believe in.

It’s time citizens of Texas, with a better vision for the future of this state, demand our elected leaders have a better vision. Passing up billions of dollars funded from our federal government to improve health care in Texas does not represent a vision for the future. We will not save the money. The money will go to other states and other people. It will cost Texans additional taxes in the long run, and those who can’t afford taxes will pay in human suffering.

Because our Texas leadership refuses to adequately fund health care in this state, what we pay for the consequences of diabetes, for example, shows the folly of not addressing this problem.  The cost of kidney dialysis has doubled, even tripled, in the last few years. Simple screening and consultation about diet could prevent much of this. Also, mental health problems and physical problems resulting in lack of prenatal care to teenage pregnant would-be mothers has untold costs that we, the taxpayers of this state, must bear.

While low wage job offerings are fine for employers who only wish to exploit labor, these will not lead to the well-paying jobs of the future.  Instead of wanting to “shoot the messenger” such as Lisa Falkenberg, we should be carrying the message and reminding our leaders that Texas can and should do better.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Air We Breathe

Listening to pundits and some Republican advocates, I keep hearing the opinion that big money authorized by Citizens United, this Citizens United Supreme Court decision will not really make a difference in politics. When I hear this I am reminded of a common saying Ive heard for many yearsMoney talks and BS walks. 

This long-lived axiom, though crudely stated, could never be more true. All we need to do in order to tell the power of money is to look around at what is happening today. A recent example of how big money can affect relatively smaller offices is the case of Tuffy Hamilton. Tuffy was not defeated because of superior intellect, experience or lack of representing his constituents. He was drowned by money. Television ads, which are very expensive, were run sometimes three times, back to back to back, in prime television time. 

This occurrence is further proof of what Adolph Hitlers propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, once said: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." What he could have added was that if you are able to promote the lie on the media with unlimited funds, too many people will begin to take it as common truth.

The power of money has been amply displayed, along with its effectiveness, by the public relations program put on by British Petroleum. There are constant series of ads touting how well Gulf Coast states are doing since the terrible oil spill of the Horizon Drilling rig. Slick and beautiful TV ads claim that never before have Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama done better than they have since the disastrous oil spill.

Unfortunately, its a one-sided fight. Advocates of a healthy ecology--the relationship between organisms and their environment--do not have the wherewithal to compete with such a well-orchestrated and well-funded public relations program. And so, no one is telling the BP disaster story of how many estuaries and hatching grounds for sea life have been destroyed or what future impact the residual chemicals placed in the Gulf of Mexico will have on future supplies of sea food, game fish or recreation. [For a continuously updated and documented review of the BP disaster and continuing degradation of the Gulf area and wildlife, go here.]

Another example of a one-sided fight is the constant TV ad campaign currently underway condemning the Environmental Protection Agency for its overbearing and job-killing regulations which the ads claim are holding the price of electrical power hostage. The ads begin with some phrase such as 'clean coal is being picked on' by an over-aggressive environmental agency which, the ads tout, has put in place overbearing, unnecessary regulations concerning air emissions.

How soon we forget! I recall when the entire family of one of my first cousins needed to move from Port Arthur, Texas, because they would periodically be beset with asthmatic attacks which were even life threatening. I had the misfortune of having to witness some of these attacks when I thought surely my cousins would die as they laid gasping for air unable to breathe. Since that time, science has told us that it was because of the unregulated and incessant emissions from the refineries which made a living for so many of us.  How soon have people my age forgotten the insidious odors of pogy plants and refinery emissions which have all but disappeared because of government regulation.

Unfortunately, the power of money probably can sell the concept of clean coal and cause more animosity toward the regulators than to the polluters. No one will be there with the funds to buy equal time to remind us of cancers, leukemia, breathing problems and a multitude of other health hazards which are prevented by decent and reasonable regulations concerning emissions into the air we breathe, the water we drink and the earth upon which we walk.