Anti-Tax Credo Keeps Texas Kids In Underfunded Schools


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Earlier this week, a district court in Texas ruled for a second time that the state’s system of paying for schools is unconstitutional, both because it fails to provide enough revenue to deliver an adequate education for Texas children and because it creates huge inequities in the quality of education enjoyed by richer versus poorer districts. The lawsuit prompting this decision was brought by hundreds of school districts in the wake of a 2011 decision by the state legislature to dramatically cut state aid to local schools. The state of Texas is expected to appeal, in which case it goes to the Texas Supreme Court.

As the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) notes (PDF), the 2011 spending cuts came after a misguided decision by the 2006 legislature to replace local property tax revenue with revenues from cigarette taxes (of all things) and a new, untested approach to taxing business income. CPPP finds that the tax hikes in that 2006 “tax swap” have paid for only about a third of the lost property tax revenue, leaving a gaping $10 billion hole in the state’s 2011 budget. This probably also helps account for what the 600 school districts in the lawsuit say is a $43,000 gap between rich and poor classrooms, too.

The choice to pay for the growing cost of education using a flat-lining tax such as the cigarette tax (whose returns are famously diminishing, PDF) reflects the limited options available in a state that refuses to levy a tax on personal income.

Texas is one of only a handful of states with no income tax, and its current Governor has made a big show of his intention to keep it that way. At a time when a number of states’ elected officials are expressing a desire to restructure their tax systems to more closely resemble the Texas tax system (usually by simply repealing their personal income tax), this week’s court decision is a harsh reminder that the short term politics of tax cuts has long term consequences for citizens. Texas, for example, has abysmal numbers on education and its poverty rate continues to rise.

So when someone like Kansas Governor Sam Brownback crows “Look out Texas. Here comes Kansas!” it might be he didn’t read the brochure before planning this particular trip. It’s not the first time he – like other political leaders – has talked up the Texas tax structure.  But given the Lone Star State’s track record, and the budget havoc tax cuts are causing in Kansas, all lawmakers should think twice before embarking on the no-income-tax path.

Photo courtesy Texas Tribune.

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