TxDOT could learn lessons from school finance

I stumbled across this article on DallasBlog.com about school finance and several key issues jumped out at me that relate to a similar bureaucracy…our Department of Transportation!

Here’s the short list of the principles mentioned that need to be applied to TxDOT:
1) The problem isn’t that we’re taxed too little, it’s the out of control spending!
2) Zero based budgeting where every expense is justified before a single new tax is levied upon us.
3) Present true alternatives to taxpayers and let us decide!
4) Restrain the growth of government spending to the increase in population plus inflation.
5) Taxpayers do not have to adopt and fund every project that the TxDOT bureaucracy claims they need. In fact, they need to be held accountable since bureaucracies don’t usually fix themselves!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006 at 09:38AM
By Tara Ross

Next week, the Texas legislature will meet in special session—yes, again—to discuss Texas’s continuing school finance problems. In particular, the legislature will be asked to review a recent proposal from the Texas Tax Reform Commission, headed by John Sharp.

This author’s views on the Sharp plan are no secret. The proposal does not attempt to address the problem of out-of-control spending in our public schools. Instead, it assumes that all requested spending is necessary, and it goes to great lengths to provide new, sneakier routes by which Texans, who are tired of paying property taxes, can be taxed. The proposal doesn’t even pretend to get rid of the much-hated property tax. It merely reduces the tax by 1/3.

Elected officials often claim that a solution to the school finance problem is difficult to identify. I beg to differ. The solution is not even remotely difficult to find. Indeed, the solution is in plain sight, right in front of our noses.

Problems arise only in finding a critical mass of legislators with enough spine to enact the solution that is plainly warranted.

What is this easy-to-find solution? Controlling spending. Plain and simple. We don’t even have to reduce spending (although I think we should). We simply need to reduce the rate at which we are increasing spending.

I’d be willing to bet that most readers of this blog are unaware of an option that was presented to the Sharp Commission by Tim Dunn, a Board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Free Market Foundation.

Dunn notes that the Texas sales tax-based system has been collecting revenues at a rate that is two percent higher than the state’s combined rate of growth in population and inflation. If we were to restrain the growth of government spending to the increase in population plus inflation, we could use this extra two percent of revenues to buy down the property tax rate.

According to Dunn, we could eliminate the M&O property tax completely in about 15 years.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. None of you have heard about this presentation. If you had, the Sharp plan wouldn’t stand the smallest chance of passing. What Texan would choose to keep at least 2/3 of this M&O property tax (to say nothing of the expanded franchise and cigarette taxes) if presented with an alternative of eliminating the M&O property tax completely over the course of a little more than a dozen years?

A few cynical readers will tell me, at this point, that spending caps of this sort are a pipe dream. Or they will say that my plan might cause schools to be underfunded, and, as good parents, we can’t do that to our children.

I agree that education is vitally important. I disagree that education will worsen if spending is reduced.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has performed some calculations that prove my point. Let’s take a zero-based budgeting approach to education spending and determine how much is really needed to adequately provide for schools’ basic needs: Teachers, school administrators, educational aides, special education, facilities, and classroom supplies. Even if you give teachers a generous pay raise to an average of $60,000 per teacher, TPPF has determined that you could finance these basic classroom needs at an annual cost of a little over $4,500 per student.

But wait. Texas currently spends about $10,000 per student. Question: Where, exactly, is the rest of our money going?

I don’t doubt that at least some of the extra expenditures are justifiable. But Texas taxpayers should demand that the education bureaucracy justify this extra $5,500 per student—and we should do so before we expand the type and number of taxes that are levied in our great state. Being good parents does not mean that we have to automatically endorse any budget that the education bureaucracy claims to need. To the contrary, responsible parents have a duty to hold educators accountable for using education funds wisely. This diligence will result in improved education for our children.

Texas taxpayers should urge their state legislators to reject the underlying assumption of the Sharp Plan. Texas’s school finance woes will not be solved if we focus on our “tax problems.” We will solve those problems only if we go to the root of the issue: Our spending problem.

Like I said, identifying the school finance solution is easy. Standing up to education lobbyists? That will take courage. I look forward to seeing which of our elected officials are up to the challenge.

Article originally appeared on DallasBlog.com (http://dallasblog.com).
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