Friday, January 25, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

County pushes for progress amid state’s political battles

Travis County has already filed bills for a third of its dozen legislative priorities for the 86th Texas Legislature since the session began Jan. 8.

One of these priorities is to ensure that sobering centers are authorized to assume responsibility for publicly intoxicated individuals. The city of Austin has been diverting people out of jail and into its sobering center since August 2018, despite state law having no provisions for the practice. Rep. Celia Israel filed House Bill 830 on Jan. 16, which clarifies the right of police officers to divert intoxicated individuals to a sobering center.

Nonetheless, the county is intimately caught up in the state’s political drama surrounding education finance and revenue increase caps. In a briefing Tuesday morning, Deece Eckstein, Travis County’s intergovernmental relations officer, told the Commissioners Court he’s “cautiously pessimistic” about the ongoing efforts to solve these multifaceted issues.

Education finance is a complex issue for districts statewide, but Eckstein is hopeful Travis County will benefit from its solution. Specifically, he’s anticipating restraints on recapture, a system added to the Texas Education Code in 1993 that redistributes tax revenue from property-wealthy districts to make up for a lack of education funds in others. As in the cases of Austin, Eanes, Lago Vista and Lake Travis, when a district’s local revenue generated from property taxes exceeds the state’s per student guaranteed funding level, it must make recapture payments.

“In Travis County, for instance, there’s $785 million in recapture money being withdrawn from just four districts in the county, so we’re hoping that the school finance solution actually ends up giving our taxpayers some relief across the board,” Eckstein said.

Such relief, however, could require big commitment from the state considering the need for more education funding statewide. With the House and Senate committing $7.4 billion and $4.3 billion to public education respectively, $3.7 billion of that money could be used to fund Sen. Jane Nelson’s bill that would require districts to give teachers a $5,000 pay increase, a 9.4 percent raise on average.

When Commissioner Brigid Shea asked whether or not the pay increase and a properly funded public education system could starve funding for other government programs, the court’s legislative consultant Gregg Knaupe said it was a possibility.

“I think even the health care provider community knows going into this session that they are a big part of the budget and generally a target when there are other spending priorities,” Knaupe said. “There is going to be a push and pull between public education and health care.”

Eckstein added that a generous solution to education finance could likely only come at the cost of other essential needs and services.

“I do know that there was some conversation that we could fix school finance if we took every penny of new money that we had and decided only to fund education with that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the Senate’s plan and I don’t think it’s the House’s plan either, but if you did that sort of thing, nothing would be left for the growth in population that we have and for the needs in Health and Human Services, transportation, criminal justice, etc.”

While the state has not guaranteed any solutions to the school finance crisis, it is also threatening to limit the county’s ability to increase its tax revenues to keep up with regional growth and demand for services. The state may limit yearly tax increases to as low as 2.5 percent.

“A lot of the members of the Legislature give Travis County credit for good fiscal stewardship and responsibility, but we’re still part of a larger problem that they feel that they need to address,” said Eckstein.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Texas Legislature: The state’s legislative governing body composed of the House and Senate.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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