The View From the 'Owner's Box'

So, the Texas Legislature decided it's OK for gay couples to be foster parents, but only if they're not married. I would explain what message that sends, if only I understood it.

Look at it this way: At least we can hunt inside city limits now. My personal fave was the day they voted themselves a huge retirement pension and the next day cut retirement benefits for the teachers. Classy move, boys. Retiring solons will now get $36,000 a year after 12 years in the Lege. The job pays $7,200 a year and requires 140 days of work once every other year. Welcome to a Republican-dominated state.

As all hands know by now, the Lege got nowhere on the Big One -- the interrelated issues of property tax relief and school financing. The whole state is screaming for property tax relief because of the rise in real estate values.

In order to lower property taxes, you have to raise them on something else. So of course the House decided to tax ordinary people, instead of taxing big corporations. Not for nothing is the House gallery, where the business lobbyists sit, known as "the Owner's Box."

The House was prepared to saddle us all with the highest sales tax in the country. By lowering property taxes and raising sales taxes, the House lowered the tax burden on the richest Texans and dumped it on the poorest Texans, in a state that already has a staggeringly regressive tax structure.

The Senate passed a fairer bill, all things being relative, but House Speaker Tom Craddick refused to compromise. Craddick is the easy winner of this session's Number One Dickhead Award. "The Speaker said no," was the story of the whole session. If the state Supreme Court, which consists of nine conservative Republicans, backs the lower court decision that our current school financing system is unconstitutional, we'll have to close the public schools in October. That's how irresponsible these people are.

You know, it's one thing for Republicans to run year after year railing against government. But once you win, you got to run it, people.

One good thing: The state added 2,500 child protection workers. This was after a study showing that 509 Texas children died from abuse or neglect over a two-and-a-half-year period between 2001 and 2004. More than a quarter of those children had previously been investigated by Child Protective Services. CPS workers are so overburdened, they're handling up to 70 cases each, when the recommended load is somewhere in the 20s. Gov. Goodhair Perry ordered the statewide study after the beating death of a 2-year-old in San Antonio just a few weeks after she was returned home from state custody. God bless the child -- at least she didn't die in vain.

Thanks to the Lege, we can now legally drive 80 mph out in West Texas and start drinking before noon at public events on Sunday. They also raised juror pay from $6 a day, one of the lowest in the nation, to $40 a day -- only took them 50 years. As former state Sen. Carl Parker says, the Texas Legislature believes 12 citizens drawn at random are competent to decide on the death penalty, but not competent to decide fair and reasonable damages against industries that poison workers. This year, the Lege put a limit on awards in asbestos lawsuits.

After years of fooling around, this was supposed to be the year the Lege would finally address the school finance problem. People, we have to get this done. As a rule, the Lege never does anything hard unless the courts are holding a gun to its collective head. Then, of course, they blame it all on "activist judges."

This may be a shrewd political ploy for the "Craddick-al Right," but it is grossly irresponsible. The basic problem is what former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock called the two-legged stool: a 19th century tax structure on a 21st century economy.

Almost all of the state's income is from property taxes and sales taxes. If you lower one, the other goes up. We don't have an income tax, and our business taxes are spotty, scarce and riddled with loopholes. Some political scientist should be able to figure out just exactly how much a company has to give in campaign contributions to get a special tax loophole in this state.

I recommend we try the old Blue Ribbon Commission ploy: Find someone with the energy of Ross Perot (if there is such an animal) to draw up a sensible plan without paying any attention to politics, and then sell it to the business community by showing them, again, their own self-interest lies in investing more in the schools. How about a special emphasis on math and science ed?

Newspaper editorials around the state graded this session an "F." As Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram said, the session opened with low expectations and managed to exceed them with an even lower performance.

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