New taxes for school security in Texas? Maybe

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Texas

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Here's something you don't see every day: Three Houston-area lawmakers -- a conservative Republican senator, a senior Senate Democrat with warm ties to the GOP and a reach-across-the-aisle Republican representative -- want to let people to pay higher school taxes.

But only if those people want to pay. State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston; and Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble are proposing new local-option property or sales taxes to give school districts extra money to spend on campus security.

It's a reminder of the 2009 legislation that several North Texas lawmakers proposed to allow local-option elections to let local voters decide whether to raise taxes or fees to fund transportation. With Williams and Whitmire in agreement, that legislation passed the Senate and died in the House. Huberty had not been elected then.

Williams said that details of the funding plan haven't been finalized and that the bill itself is still being drafted. Legislators have until March 8 to file most bills. Williams said a constitutional amendment might be required.

As described, the proposal raises a lot of questions:

For the first time, school districts could levy sales taxes, but only if cities, counties and special districts haven't already reached the statewide 2 percent local sales tax cap. Cities rely heavily on sales tax revenue, and this would take a future funding source away from them.

Currently, the primary source of revenue for school districts is property taxes, which also are capped under state law. The lawmakers described their proposal as "separate from all other district funding," which presumably means outside the state cap.

This will be a crucial detail of the bill when it is filed.

Texas has been through decades of school finance lawsuits grounded on the fact that property values vary greatly across more than 1,000 districts. Under this plan as described, two districts with the same number of students and the same property tax levy could have vastly different amounts of money to spend on security.

But kids are no more precious in one district than another.

Williams, Whitmire and Huberty might have a worthy proposal here, but Texans won't know until they see the details.

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