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      Debate on statewide property tax for schools

      AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - With yet another legal challenge to Texas' school finance system lurking, some key senators say it is time the state finds a lasting fix for the broken system.

      Their proposed solution: asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment to authorize a statewide property tax that would replace much of the local school property tax.

      Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he knows that just mentioning a possible statewide property tax will stir up emotions.

      But he would prefer that the state's voters, rather than the courts, have the final say on how Texas should pay for its public schools.

      "If you go out and ask people for permission, a lot of times they say, yes," Ogden said in meeting this week with the American-Statesman editorial board. Ogden, first elected to the Senate in 1996, is seeking re-election.

      State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said a statewide property tax wouldn't add to taxpayers' total burden.

      But it would provide for an equitable and efficient public education system, as required by the state constitution, because the state could redistribute the money according to established formulas, he said.

      Texas public schools are paid for through a complicated mix of state and local tax dollars that amount to nearly $49 billion a year, according to the Texas Education Agency.

      Over time, the formulas have been made less effective by a hodgepodge of fixes intended to meet concerns of specific legal challenges. "Our school finance system seems to be driven by the courts and not necessarily 1/4u2026 thoughtful policy," said Duncan, chairman of the State Affairs Committee.

      Since the most recent fix in 2006, a general consensus has emerged across the political spectrum that the system is badly broken. For example, the per-student funding in Williamson County ranges from $4,600 in the Granger district to almost $6,300 in the nearby Jarrell district.

      School districts are expected to file a lawsuit soon saying the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional objectives. The exact nature of the legal claims are not yet public.

      It would probably take years for the case to work its way through the courts.

      In the meantime, Ogden offered a few broad details of the possible constitutional amendment that might pre-empt a court decision:

      - Repeal a prohibition on a statewide property tax and allow the state to levy a tax of up to $1 per $100 of assessed property value.

      Currently, schools districts cannot levy a tax higher than $1.17 per $100 for maintenance and operations, and they must get voter approval to exceed $1.04.

      - Allow local school districts to levy a property tax of up to 20 cents per $100 of assessed property value for "enrichment" purposes.

      -Eliminate the so-called Robin Hood system that requires property-wealthy school districts to contribute to the funding of poorer districts.

      - Set a lower limit on how much residential property values can increase each year. The limit is now 10 percent.

      "When you say statewide property tax, you're in trouble," Ogden said. "So you're going to have to sell it. It is going to have to be a package. But I think that is where we need to go."

      To get the amendment on the ballot requires approval of two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature. And there is plenty in that package to turn off legislators on both sides.

      State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said there will be legitimate questions about fairness and local control under this approach.

      "I think local school districts very much want the ability to set their own tax rates as high or as low as they choose. To the extent that the state takes that away, I think districts see that as a loss of local control," said Hochberg, who is commonly seen as the go-to guy on school finance.

      Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the idea is one of many under consideration by a special committee on school finance.

      "We want to look at all options. Everything that is out there we want to bring forward again," Shapiro said.

      Ogden floated a similar proposal in the past, most recently in 2006, the last time Texas was involved in a school finance lawsuit. But it got little traction at the time.

      This time he's starting earlier, and he argues that there is an advantage to this approach beyond avoiding lawsuits.

      "If the financing is more equitable, and it is less subject to routine constitutional challenge, then we might have some time to work" on improving schools, Ogden said.

      The constitutional prohibition against a statewide property tax has been in place for decades. Although a statewide property tax had been a major source of state revenue for a time, lawmakers - with the voters' consent - did away with it amid concerns that it was not applied uniformly across the state because of disparate property appraisal practices. Constitutional changes have since attempted to standardize the appraisal process.


      Information from: Austin American-Statesman

      (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)