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OPINION: State Capital Highlights: Court rules school finance system unconstitutional

AUSTIN – When the Texas Legislature convenes on Jan. 13, 2015, lawmakers will have the job of revising the state’s school finance system, again.

This task was made necessary on Aug. 28, when state District Judge John Dietz ruled the current finance system violates these four state constitutional standards: the state property tax prohibition and the education clause requirements of adequacy, suitability, and financial efficiency.

In his 400-page ruling, Dietz pointed out that the Legislature is constitutionally required to “structure, operate and fund” a public school system that achieves a “general diffusion of knowledge” and that “children who live in poor districts and children who live in rich districts must have a substantially equal opportunity to have access to educational funds.”

The case was brought in October 2012. Plaintiffs, to whom the court granted relief, are: The Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, et al.; Calhoun County ISD, et al.; Edgewood ISD, et al.; Fort Bend ISD et al.; and Texas Charter School Association, et al.; and Intervenors Joyce Coleman, et al. Defendants are Michael Williams, Commissioner of Education, in his official capacity; Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, in her official capacity; and Texas Board of Education.

Williams reacted, saying, “Regardless of the ruling at the district court level, all sides have known this is an issue that will again be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court.”

Dismissal order is sought

Gov. Rick Perry’s legal team on Aug. 26 submitted a 60-page document seeking dismissal of a Travis County grand jury’s Aug. 15 two-count indictment of the governor on felony charges of abuse of office and coercion of a public servant.

The document, an application to the 390th Travis County Judicial Court for a pre-trial writ of habeas corpus, contains arguments in support of the Governor’s veto of the 2014-2015 budget of the state’s Public Integrity Unit, a division of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Perry said he would veto the division’s budget unless District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, resigned from office after she was arrested for drunken driving in April 2013. Lehmberg refused to resign and Perry carried out the veto, prompting the grand jury indictment.

The conclusion portion of the application for a pre-trial writ of habeus corpus asserts, “continued prosecution of Governor Perry on the current indictment is unprecedented, insupportable, and simply impermissible” and suggests the court “should not hesitate to dismiss both counts of the indictment and bar the prosecution immediately, if not sooner.” Also, the conclusion portion states “it is not fault of the court that it has been asked to intrude on a political dispute.”

Panel to study ethics laws

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Aug. 22 announced appointees to a new Select Interim Committee to Study Ethics Laws, in accordance with Senate Bill 1773 passed by the Legislature in 2013.

The committee will study “the effectiveness of laws and regulations related to ethics, including campaign finance, lobby laws and personal financial disclosure laws,” Dewhurst said.

Straus said, “Sound ethics laws can help build and maintain public confidence in government. I trust the members of this committee to give those laws a thorough review and recommend ways to make our system more transparent and accountable to citizens.”

Sen. Joan Huffman and Rep. Sarah Davis, both Houston Republicans, will co-chair the committee.

Lowest-yet interest rate

State Comptroller Susan Combs on Aug. 26 announced the sale of $5.4 billion in one-year Texas Tax and Revenue Anticipation Notes, and those notes received a record-low interest rate of 0.1326 percent. The previous low was 0.2008 percent in 2013.

“The best ratings from Wall Street ratings firms and strong demand for Texas notes helped drive down the borrowing cost,” Combs explained. Money from TRAN sales is used to help fund expenditures such as public school payments early in the fiscal year and manage cash flow between the start of the fiscal year and the arrival of tax revenues later in the year.

Extra caution is advised

Texas Department of Public Safety on Aug. 22 reminded drivers to watch out for children walking to and from school or waiting for school buses.

Also, drivers who illegally pass school buses face fines up to $1,250 for a first offense. A ticket for illegally passing a school bus cannot be dismissed through defensive driving.

DPS Director Steven McCraw said, “Individuals who illegally pass stopped school buses endanger our children, and DPS officers will not tolerate drivers who break the law and put others in harm’s way.”

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