State Rep: Sacrifice tax for Pre-K 4 SA, not aquifer protection program, to fund mass transit plan

Rep. Larson says mayor should consider targeting 1/8 cent that funds free prekindergarten program rather than tax funding Edwards Aquifer Protection Program

San Antonio – In an open letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said that if the mayor wants a sales tax to fund transportation, he should consider taking the one that funds a free prekindergarten program rather than the one funding an aquifer protection program.

In the letter dated Jan. 15, the representative for state House District 122 urged the mayor against redirecting the sales tax that funds the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) to help fund VIA, as Nirenberg wants. Instead, he suggests redirecting the sales tax that provides most of Pre-K 4 SA’s annual funding.

“Eliminating funding from a program that has protected our community’s most important water source for decades makes little sense, especially when there are other available funding sources that are currently dedicated to duplicative programs,” Larson writes.

Asked about the letter during Thursday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Ron Nirenberg told KSAT he had not yet read it.

“So I’m happy to meet with Representative Larson when I read the letter, but after that time. I haven’t read it yet,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg’s spokesperson said later Thursday that Nirenberg had read the letter, but has yet to issue a statement. The spokesperson also said that the mayor supports keeping the tax for Pre-K 4 SA.

At the heart of the issue is a juggling act of funding sources.

Both the 1/8-cent tax that funds the aquifer protection program and creek trail development and the 1/8-cent tax that provides most of Pre-K 4 SA’s annual revenue are set to expire in 2021.

Rather than renewing the funding for the EAPP, which he has asked the SAWS Board of Trustees to take over, Nirenberg wants voters to approve the 1/8-cent sales tax for VIA going forward.

At the same time, Pre-K 4 SA’s board of directors is asking the San Antonio City Council to get its 1/8-cent sales tax back on the ballot for voters to reauthorize it.

However, Larson, who chairs the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, thinks the two taxes should be in reverse positions.

The EAPP, which voters have approved to receive sales tax dollars since 2000, is meant to protect the city’s primary source of drinking water by purchasing land and acquiring easements in the aquifer’s recharge and contributing zones.

Larson writes that he disagreed with removing that funding source in favor of giving it to mass transit and that “dismantling or modifying this program should not occur without a clear presentation of the proposal to voters.”

The ballot language should be clear that the choice is “between aquifer protection or a mass transit plan,” Larson writes, adding that it should be made clear to voters that transferring the program to SAWS might involve a rate increase.

City Attorney Andy Segovia apparently nixed that idea when asked about it by KSAT.

“Unless specifically required by statute, elections must be presented as yes or no propositions, so it is not possible to hold an election that asks voters to choose between options on the same ballot," Segovia wrote in a statement.

SAWS trustees have not yet agreed to take over the program, and the utility’s CEO has said it’s too early to say if a rate increase would be necessary if they do.

Larson argues that the Pre-K 4 SA program is a better target for finding mass transit funds.

The program, which is funded largely with a tax approved in 2012, runs four centers around San Antonio that offer free and reduced price prekindergarten education, distributes grants that support students in other programs, and provides professional development for educators.

“Since the Legislature acted in 2019, through House Bill 3, to require school districts to offer full day prekindergarten and appropriated $780 million for the state’s Early Education Allotment, it appears that all local school districts will be able to provide the services that Pre-K 4 SA currently delivers,” Larson writes.

However, in presenting to city council members on Wednesday - the same day Larson’s letter is dated - Pre-K 4 SA officials refuted that HB 3 had replaced the need for their program.

“So what I hear from our district colleagues is that while HB 3 was a good step forward, it really is not covering the full costs of full day pre-K, let alone all the other things,” Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray told council members. “And also, there is a fear that in the next biennium, there will not be sufficient funding to continue to provide that support and then districts would be back to the same level of funding they had previously.”

The law did not increase the number of children eligible for prekindergarten either, Baray said. Meanwhile, Pre-K 4 SA plans to help expand access to prekindergarten for 3,000 more families through its centers and partner programs.

Those families would be ones who wouldn’t normally qualify to attend prekindergarten for free, but who also would likely not be able to pay for it on their own.

A spokesperson for Pre-K 4 SA declined to respond to Larson’s letter but reiterated Baray’s points from Wednesday’s council meeting.

About the Author

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

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