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Jerry Patterson versus everybody else – updated

Well it looks like my buds over at Progress Texas got into a bit of a tussle with Land Commish Jerry Patterson.

Here’s the background: in the process of the Republicans in charge of the Texas Legislature cutting more than $5 billion from neighborhood schools, they also put an initiative on the ballot last November to allow for more money from the Permanent School Fund to be made available to fund schools.

After voters approved the measure, Patterson – whose office essentially controls the fund, declined to release the additional money, which amounts to $300 million (to offset $5 billion in cuts). That’s when Progress Texas put on the pressure, and the insults started flyin’.

I’m disappointing my friends on this one: Patterson did the right thing.

At issue here is the continued health of Texas’ Permanent School Fund, which was created in 1845. The fund was designed as an investment fund, the earnings of which would help fund public schools – which it has been doing ever since, thanks to the foresight of the folks in charge of this state in 1845 (who are clearly more forward-thinking than the folks in charge in 2012).

What legislators essentially did in the budget last year, in the process of cutting billions from public schools, was authorize a raid on the fund. In other words, they wanted to start eating their seed corn, just so the Republicans could claim they stayed out of the Rainy Day Fund. The Rainy Day Fund is a fund created specifically for the purpose legislators wanted to swipe money out of the Permanent School Fund for. But Rick Perry, gearing up for his Presidential run, issued the edict that using money out of the Rainy Day Fund would suddenly be deemed “un-conservative,” or something. I call it “poll question policy-making,” and Perry excels at it.

Setting aside the irony that Progress Texas is essentially agreeing with Rick Perry and the Republican legislative leadership on this narrow point, the problem with this solution – and the reason I’m siding with Patterson – is because raiding the fund is a terrible precedent. If legislators of times past had gone down this road, the Permanent School Fund would have been depleted long ago, just so weak-kneed legislators could avoid telling constituents they had to either raise taxes or make tough cuts. Same with the Permanent University Fund, which is essentially the same deal for higher education. These two funds were, and remain, critical in funding public education, and in building and maintaining Texas’ top tier Universities – UT and A&M. The folks in charge in 1845 were clearly more willing to invest in a strong future for Texas than the folks in charge in 2012.

If Progress Texas’ hope is to call attention to the fact that Texas’ public schools are short $5 billion because of the short-sightedness of the Republicans in charge, more power to ‘em, because it’s true. Those Republicans should be ashamed of themselves, both for that, and for failing to utilize the Rainy Day Fund to offset those cuts. Quality teachers are being laid off, and your children are being packed like sardines in crowded classrooms as a result. Nobody anywhere can credibly claim that anything legislators did last session will improve the quality of your child’s education.

But Land Commish Patterson isn’t one of the Republicans in charge who made those decisions. He’s right to protect the fund from this raid.

Update: I received a comment from Phillip Martin over at Progress Texas, and in the interest of fairness wanted to share it in its entirety. It doesn’t change my mind – I still side with Patterson on this. But perhaps in posting it, Phil will follow through with his free t-shirt offer:

There’s not a lot of people I trust more than Harold Cook, and I’m not just talking about politics. Harold has set me straight and helped me – and my family – out a number of times. Beyond being funny as hell, his honesty about people and insights about politics and life are invaluable, which is why I perk up and pay attention when he suggests, as he did this morning, that my work and the work of my organization, Progress Texas, may be missing the mark.

At question is whether or not Jerry Patterson should release $300 million from the Permanent School Fund to the Available School Fund. Harold argues that:

“Setting aside the irony that Progress Texas is essentially agreeing with Rick Perry and the Republican legislative leadership on this narrow point, the problem with this solution – and the reason I’m siding with Patterson – is because raiding the fund is a terrible precedent. If legislators of times past had gone down this road, the Permanent School Fund would have been depleted long ago, just so weak-kneed legislators could avoid telling constituents they had to either raise taxes or make tough cuts.”

I agree with Harold – it would be terrible to just raid the fund. But the law passed by the Legislature and adopted by Texas voters in Proposition 6 wouldn’t deplete the fund. When the law passed this time last year, there was $24 billion in the Permanent School Fund (PSF). Today, according to Patterson’s letter, there is $26 billion in the Permanent School Fund. Taking out $300 million – the amount in question – still keeps the PSF at levels above where it was at a year ago when the law was passed.

The money would make a difference, too. The average teacher makes $47,150 a year in Texas. So the $300 million — just to illustrate it’s importance — would cover the salaries of over 3,000 teachers in Texas over this two year budget cycle. It’s a far cry from the $5.4 billion that was cut, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

We need to do way, way, way more to fund our public schools. But we can’t tap the Rainy Day Fund today. We can’t pass a law to send more money to our schools today. Shoot – Perry and the Republican Legislature probably won’t let anyone do any of that at any time, ever. But Patterson can release money to our schools today, and if he stepped back from his name-calling and chest-beating, he might realize he actually has an opportunity to both make his point about Republicans screwing up funding and get praised by Texas education groups for doing the right thing.

As for us and Progress Texas, we’re looking into making “Slacktivist” t-shirts as we speak. Harold, yours will be on the house!

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