Monday, June 10, 2013


As a student of government, educated by experience, I have long held the belief that public education is among the most important functions of state government.  Unfortunately, more and more it appears my belief in education as the future of Texas is not shared by the leadership of state government today.

The founders of Texas thought the support of education important enough to enshrine it in our state's constitution.  The Constitution provides that the Legislature provide for a sufficient system of funding for public education.  It is clear the Constitution does not provide responsibility of funding public education on the shoulders of cities, counties or independent school districts. 

The Legislature has apparently ignored the recent finding of an Austin district court that the current system of funding public education is unconstitutional.  The court recently ruled our current system does not meet the mandate of our state's constitution.

It is absolutely clear that the Legislature, in its slavish dedication to no new taxes, has continued to shift the burden of funding of public education to local government--local school boards, homeowners and business owners--in the form of property taxes.  To any observer, our current system of local taxation is patently unfair.  It rewards those with the least tax burden to raise the greatest amount of funding available per pupil while those making the greatest effort produce the least amount for educating the pupils in their districts.

There is adequate evidence from past sessions wherein Republican priorities lie.  During a floor debate over making temporary business tax breaks permanent, Senator Rodney Ellis pointed out the measure would take hundreds of millions away from education.  The answer to Senator Ellis' question from the Republican side was, “We have done it for the past four years!”  There seemed to be little concern that reducing the state's efforts for public education continues to shift more of the burden to local property owners.

The conservative leadership placed in charge of public education this past session, at least in the Senate, has exacerbated the shortage of funding for public education by condoning an almost unlimited increase in the number of charter schools.  Charter schools are funded throughout the state at a higher rate per pupil than are independent school districts.  Every newly created charter school takes away funding which otherwise could be available to support public education in our state.  

Not only do charter schools dissipate the amount of funding at the state level, they take away funding which would otherwise be allocated in the local district on a per-pupil basis from the public schools.

The greatest hope for advocates of adequately funded public schools is that the recent court ruling will be upheld in the direct appeal to the Supreme Court of Texas.  I have serious doubts the current makeup of the Texas Supreme Court will offer great hope in this regard.  A majority of the current Court has been appointed by our current governor, Rick Perry, who stoutly maintains public education is already adequately funded.  

Today's Texas Supreme Court is vastly different from the one which first ruled that Texas' public education was unconstitutional.  That court was led by former Senator Oscar Mauzy who had served two terms as chairman of the Senate Education Committee.  Oscar Mauzy was long a champion of a quality of opportunity and firmly believed the future of Texas was tied to the quality of education we delivered to future generations.  Time will only tell whether or not current justices of our supreme court share the vision of Oscar Mauzy and others dedicated to the future of public education.


Recently, Hearst News started a series on the federal government procedure of forfeiture of assets.  The news articles reveal assets are often forfeited from people innocent of any crime and without judicial review. Hearst News’ effort to inform the general public of what is an unfair, undemocratic practice is commendable. Most folks know very little about forfeiture, only having heard of it as an effective law enforcement tool.

Federal law provides that any property used in criminal efforts may be forfeited. After the forfeiture, the proceeds of the forfeiture are shared not only by the federal authorities but also by local government involved in the seizure.

Few Americans know the extent to which forfeiture can be abused, robbing innocent citizens of their properties. One of the leading cases in forfeiture took place when a group of people purchased a large ship, a freighter. Unfortunately for the owners, they leased it to a South American concern who sublet the large vessel. Apparently, the people subletting from the leaseholders used the freighter to transport a ship load of marijuana. Federal authorities took the valuable vessel from its owners without notice.

When the true owners of the vessel discovered they had been deprived of their property, via the criminal forfeiture statute, they appealed ultimately to the Supreme Court of the United States who ruled the forfeiture was valid even though no notice of forfeiture had been given to the true owners of the vessel.  The only real appeal owners of forfeited property have is to appeal to the good graces of the Justice Department or U.S. Attorney.

In my view there are several problems with this procedure.  First and foremost, property of people who have never committed a crime can be taken with little or no judicial review of the circumstances or fairness of the forfeiture. Second, with forfeiture, police agencies are given an independent source of revenue uncontrolled by any elected official.

Glaring examples can be found locally in Jefferson County’s past in which several thousand dollars of forfeited funds were used not to chase crooks but to re-carpet sections of the then district attorney’s office. In Williamson County, the county adjoining Austin, Texas, a prosecutor once used forfeited funds to purchase an antique automobile. The prosecutor justified this purchase by saying he could use it to attract the attention of young people in order to lecture them on the evils of drug use.

All of us taxpayers pay a great enough price for effective law enforcement. We fund police departments, prosecutors, judges, courts and various staffs associated with the enforcement of criminal laws. It appears to me that should there be income from forfeiting property which has been used in the commission of crimes it ought to go into the general funds and be allocated by the people we elect to make those decisions. 

Part of the genius of a democratic society which has kept America free from abuses of militaristic agencies is civilian control. The only civilian control available to police forfeited funds is the budget, enforced by elected officials such as city councils and commissioners’ courts.

The technique of forfeiture of property based on criminal use needs serious revisions at both ends of the process--both the procedure for taking and the procedure for spending.