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VAN DE PUTTE: Resolutions for 83rd Legislature

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AUSTIN - Another New Year is coming, and of course, that means New Year’s Resolutions. I have one I’ll commit to as a Texas state Senator. But to keep it, I’ll need my colleagues the Legislature to join me, as well as our Governor.

In 2013, the 83rd Legislature should resolve to produce a budget based on Texans’ priorities, rather than on a pre-set dollar amount. In the previous session two years ago, the Legislature (over my objections) did the exact opposite — they first decided how much money was going to be spent, with an absolute refusal to search for new revenue sources, and then ordered our state’s employees to cobble together a government as best they could from limited means. Our state constitution does require a balanced budget, but legislators decided to accomplish this through cuts only.

The effect was devastating. Our public education system endured $5.4 billion in cuts, the first time we have ever failed to account for new population growth in our school funding. Our universities — the engines of our future economic prosperity — took a $1.3 billion hit.

In primary education, that meant layoffs of teachers and other essential staff. For your children, that translates to larger class sizes and less individual attention per student. It also means less-experienced teachers — as an education policy professor from Duke University recently testified in the ongoing school finance lawsuit, low salaries will drive our best teachers to other states, or out of the profession altogether.

For our college students, that means higher tuition to offset reduced funding, putting a degree out of reach for so many students who have the drive but lack the money. It means taking longer to graduate, because the student takes a job and cuts back on course load. And since these cuts, university chancellors have said they're struggling to comply with the Hazlewood law, which gives tuition breaks to our Texas veterans — breaks those service members and their families earned and deserve.

But rather than restoring these funds, the early buzz coming from many legislators is a desire to cut even further.

The phrase “cutting off our nose to spite our face” comes to mind. Actually, a better analogy might be cutting off our brain to save our body — that’s a strategy that just isn’t going to work.

Instead, let us as a state first identify what our priorities are, and then figure out how we reach those goals. Otherwise, we’ll have to ask:
• Will teachers continue spending for classroom supplies out of their own pockets?
• Will our kids continue to learn (or struggle to learn) in overcrowded classrooms?
• Will we simply ignore our veterans and not fulfill the Hazelwood benefits that they earned?

State Education Commissioner Michael Williams recently told Austin's KUT radio, “The state must be about first and foremost making sure that we retain, encourage and recruit the best teachers in the classroom, that we provide the nourishment that they need through professional development and training."

I agree! But he didn't carry that thought quite far enough: He also should have pointed out that reaching that goal requires a monetary investment.

We often hear fiscal conservatives argue that our government should budget like families do. Again, I agree: Families assess their needs and their goals, they draw up a budget, and sometimes, they find ways to bring in new revenues (i.e., taking a second job) to help meet their financial needs.

The Legislature should budget the same way. If our current revenue isn't enough, lawmakers shouldn't stubbornly reject the idea of new revenues. Are there corporate tax breaks we could eliminate? Could we overhaul our badly flawed business tax structure? Can we tap the $8 billion Rainy Day Fund?

Instead of just throwing our hands up in the air and saying the money isn't there, let's do like Texas families do and find the way to fund our needs and goals — our growing state needs to invest in education, as well as water and transportation. That’s my resolution. Soon we will see how many of my colleagues will join me.

This was written by State Senator Leticia Van de Putte. She represents District 26 in Bexar County. She chairs the Veteran Affairs & Military Installations Committee, and also sits on the Education, Business & Commerce, and State Affairs committees.


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