(Political commentary)

Sadler openly advocates income tax to fund schools

Dave McNeely

Austin American-Statesman

Publication Date: November 24, 1992  Page: A11  Section: Editorial  Edition: FINAL

It's against the grain of the conventional political wisdom in Texas.

Many consider it political suicide. But freshman state Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, as he heads into his second term, is advocating an income tax to fund public schools. Openly.

Sadler, 37, a well-to-do plaintiff's attorney, has studied education funding over the last two years, talking with teachers, superintendents and school finance experts. Now he's discussing his ideas about school finance with service clubs and other citizen groups in his district. He has developed this message:

A broad-based, statewide tax is needed - and definitely preferable to the plan legislators are considering that would take, or "recapture," local property tax revenue from rich districts and give it to poor ones.

Recapture is "the wrong road," Sadler said in a recent interview. "The long-term solution to school finance, I think, has the following elements:

"One is consolidation of marginal (school) districts, primarily tax-haven type of districts. And I think you can do that with some incentives rather than force consolidation . . .

"Secondly, the overall funding system must (include) a statewide revenue source. And that can be, in my opinion, either a statewide property tax, or a state income tax - which is the fairest of all methods, because it puts everyone in the scheme. Or it could actually be a combination of statewide revenue sources. But in any event, it has to be a statewide revenue source . . .

"The third element that's real important . . . is that . . . there has to be some form of local enrichment - because local enrichment is the driver in the system. That's how we improve education in this state.

"That's a very simple system, it's one that anyone could look at and say this is how we fund education. A school district could plan its future on it. . . ."

Sadler noted that the Texas Supreme Court has said repeatedly that Texas' education finance problem is too much reliance on local property taxes. A half century ago, legislators passed the Gilmer-Aikin school finance reform that determined the proper ratio was 80 percent state money to 20 percent local money.

Currently, the state puts in about 50 percent, Sadler said, and the "Fair Share Plan" of Gov. Ann Richards, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and House Speaker Gib Lewis would shrink the state share to near 40 percent.

The fallacy of recapture, Sadler said, is that while it may start by being limited to 10 or even 20 percent of the wealthiest districts, eventually someone may say "it is more fair for the top half to share with the lower half," Sadler said. "When you do that, you've got a statewide property tax."

The other problem, Sadler said, is that the local property tax is the only vehicle for local enrichment. If the state is dipping into that revenue too, it makes it tougher to raise money for local schools.

"It's going to be such a burden that I think eventually the public's going to cry out for reform of our tax system," Sadler said. "So I would rather us go ahead and do it now."

Several other Democrats have endorsed an income tax, including Bullock and his predecessor Bill Hobby. But Bullock backed off after finding little support. The same is true of Sen. John Montford, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who got a lot of abuse and no backing for the idea.

Sadler said state leaders will have to sell the idea - with a statewide TV "blitz" and discussions with their constituents and educators - to "tell them `This is what we're doing, this is why, and this is where we want to go with education, and this is how it will benefit you.'

"If you do that, you could educate the public," Sadler said. "We've not tried to do that, and so what you get from the constituency oftentimes is a knee-jerk reaction: `No, I don't want an income tax' - even though they don't fully understand the relief they'll get from local property taxes and other taxes."

"And it is the fear of an income tax, from a legislator's standpoint, and having to face an opponent that will beat you over the head with that, that keeps most legislators from speaking out and saying what we all know is true."

So Sadler is speaking out. Whether anyone outside his district listens is another matter.

McNeely, an American-Statesman columnist, covers political issues affecting the state.