Q&A: Tom Oliverson, Brandon Creighton talk tax reform, school funding and Hurricane Harvey recovery

Oliverson and Creighton spoke at Lone Star College System in The Woodlands Monday.

Oliverson and Creighton spoke at Lone Star College System in The Woodlands Monday.

With the Texas Legislative session behind them, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, spoke at an event at Lone Star College System in The Woodlands Monday afternoon to discuss what got passed in the Legislature, what did not and what they are concerned with going into the 2019 session. Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith moderated the Q&A event.

Evans: Was the time you spent in Austin good for your community and beneficial to you constituents?

Oliverson: I think the community is better. I remember just last week I got to go back to one of my Republican clubs where I remember some of my campaign promises—here’s what I’m going to work on and things like that—and I think the vast majority of them we accomplished.

Some of the things we talked about specifically were dealing with sanctuary cities, which we did get that done, [and] we talked about easing regulations on small businesses, which we did [with] several bills. Lots of pro-life bills were passed not only during the regular session but during the special session as well. I think we did very well.

Evans: Was it a good or a bad session?

Creighton: I think we had a good session. It’s anyone’s opinion, in this room or across the state, if they want their government to accomplish more or less coming out of a legislative session. If we accomplish absolutely nothing in some people’s minds that’s a major victory, so it just depends on exactly where you want us to be.

We passed a very conservative budget. It came in well under growth and inflation at 1.9 percent for the next biennium, supporting a trillion dollar GDP in this state economy and job creation and everything else they want to see in Texas.

As all of our entrepreneurs and businesses and risk takers do what they do on a daily basis, they want this government to provide for those that are the most vulnerable, and invest in infrastructure and keep the fiscal house in order and step aside and let everyone else on a daily basis take it from there.

Evans: You all had an opportunity to overhaul the public school finance system but didn’t. How should we think about public school finance as it relates to that?

Creighton: [We have a] school finance commission to really, genuinely, for the first time in decades look at how our public schools are financed. As we continue to work to overhaul property tax reform just consider what we’re doing there in that period of time while oil is historically low.

When we go into the session to work on a $216 billion budget and we have expectations up here to just overhaul the school finance system. It’s been a soap opera for 40-something years with litigation for all that time; it’s not so much a quick fix and certainly the dollars are very, very tight. These are very heavy concerns, but that school finance commission is very important. It’s a very meaningful and substantive group and we’re going to work toward the solution going forward.

Oliverson: I think the brokenness in the system comes from the complexity. I find it very disturbing and troubling that when I ran for office, one of the things that I learned is that the school finance formula is Byzantine—it’s complicated. We’ve been adding layers of complexity in order to try and solve various issues for so long that it’s hard to try and find somebody in the capital who can actually tell you a simple number of how much it costs to educate a child in Texas per year.

I hope one of the things that the commission does is look at all of these numbers and all of this complexity and come back with a reasonable and explainable number that we can actually wrap our arms around and start building a budget based on how many children you have in a school and how much money you have.

Evans: Would you be in favor of the state taking on a greater share of public education as a way to relieve property taxpayers of the burden that they are increasingly taking on?

Oliverson: I would, and I think that the folks elect us representatives and senators to deal with public school finance and I think that that’s our responsibility. I do think to a certain extent and with an ever-increasing percentage we’ve had to kind of abdicate a lot of that responsibility to the local level, and I’d like to see us take it back so that the citizens can hold us accountable and the legislature accountable for the dollars. We spend all this time up there debating on how much it cost to educate a child and yet the reality is that less than 40 percent of that child’s education funding is actually coming from the state. The majority of it is coming at the local level.

Creighton: I don’t think that the state necessarily has to match what the local level is spending on public education. Over the years, we have shifted across a pendulum at the state level. For the past almost 50 years, it has been between the mid-30 percentiles and the upper 40 percentiles [from the state] compared to the local level.

But we can’t necessarily keep up with the local spending decisions of local governing entities, nor should we have to. So for instance, our funding for public schools has been [going up] for years and years and years, but if local school districts are spending even more, we can’t keep up with a match of 50-50. We can look at the fact that we are contributing more and more dollars every two years. In this session, there were 80,000 new students to Texas each year that we have to accommodate for, and we put $2.65 billion more dollars into public education. If that doesn’t match a 50-50 comparison, we may need to look at how many administrators are at each school, we may need to look at how expensive stadiums are at the local level. Spending doesn’t always match what dollars go into the classroom and affect each child.

Evans: In a legislature as conservative as this one with a near Republican supermajority in both the house and the senate, you’d think property tax would be a layup. What happened and why couldn’t you get it done?

Oliverson: I just think that there was a fundamental disagreement about which way to get it done. The Senate proposal and the House proposal at the end of the day were very different. And unfortunately, at the end of the day, there was not an ability to come together to meet in the middle. It’s interesting to me that it boiled down to what percentage are you going to agree to. We’d start at eight and then we’d say four and then we’d say six and five was thrown out, and it was a whole conversation breakdown in the special session and I just have to say personally that that kind of frustrated me. I really wanted to get something done.

It has to be meaningful. To just sort of put a window dressing on the issues is not substantive. Reforming the tax system is important but I want to provide some significant relief. If what we want is to provide property tax relief, we need to look at something bigger. I’ve thought about this issue in the special session and to me, at least in my household and for my constituents, 60 percent of their property tax bill is public education and so to me that’s a chunk of money that we [can] provide significant relief there.

Evans: Are you concerned about the economic impact of Hurricane Harvey heading into the next legislative session?

Oliverson: I am concerned and I think that we’re really only realizing the tip of the iceberg as far as that’s concerned. The FEMA dollars that we’ve been told we’re going to get for homeowners and business owners and things like that, it may take up to two years. I wonder, are these business owners able to shoulder that burden in the meantime?

Texas has had a history of solving Texas’ problems, and so I think that we need to step up again and figure that out. I think that we have infrastructure problems and I think there is going to be a need to sit down and have some serious conversations about what role does Texas play in the next budget cycle in terms of, “Are there capital improvement projects that simply can’t wait for the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers to make up their mind?” I know my constituents in the Cypress Creek watershed, we sure would like to get that third reservoir that we were promised in the 1940’s built and I don’t know if we can wait for the federal government to prioritize that.

I am also very concerned about the way in which we go about informing the public about the risk of potential flooding. We talk about 100-year floodplains and 500-year floodplains. I don’t dispute [that] the numbers they calculate are done the way they’re supposed to, but I dispute whether or not a homeowner who is in a 500-year floodplain and is trying to make a decision about whether they need flood insurance is getting useful information that is going to help them accurately assess what their risk is year to year.
By Wendy Sturges
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Sturges has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and moved to Tennessee in 2019.


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