Lawmakers Believe School Finance Plan Days Away From House Vote

The plan to solve the school finance situation in Texas will become much clearer in the next week, according to one East Texas legislator.  On the table now is a broad-based business tax, a hike in cigarette taxes, and using part of a huge budget surplus, all to give property tax relief.

"The last thing we want is for the courts to take control of public education," says State Senator Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.  He says most lawmakers support a tax on all business -- a broad-based tax to replace the franchise tax levied on corporations.

"It's broad-based.  It's fair. It's equitable. It's actually a tax swap. If it's passed, we'll, in turn, take that money and reduce property taxes which will solve the court order," Eltife says.

Longview's Tommy Merritt agrees.

"If you have to bite the buillet, we should not exempt people or industries that should be paying the tax," says the Republican member of the Texas House.

The other hot button is whether to tax more to light up a cigarette. A dollar a pack more is the proposal.  Representative Merritt says there shouldn't be a tax increase when the state's budget surplus is 8.2 billion, and smokers will find ways around it.

"I think we just [create] a black market.  People will run to Louisiana or Arkansas to buy cigarettes and we lose revenue in our communities," he says.

Eltife wishes lawmakers could choose where that money goes.

"I don't have a problem with a cigarette tax, but I'd prefer it go to health care issues," he says.

With the surplus announced last week, there are some lawmakers who want to pay down property taxes and go home. Jacksonville Democrat Chuck Hopson says that's dangerous.

"I think it's very tempting when we do that, but it's not giving us a permanent fix for education," he says.

The Senate will be waiting in recess to see what passes the House next week, and if long-term problems will get solved.  But there is still much hope.

This is the fifth time legislators have been called back into special session to debate school finance. In November, the state supreme court said if property taxes weren't slashed by June 1, they'd take control of the school system, and schools might not open in the fall.

Reported by Morgan Palmer.