Public education funding and the state’s finances garnered much attention at a Texas Tribune panel discussion held with local State House members on Tuesday at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

State Reps. Diego Bernal (D-123), Rick Galindo (R-117), Ina Minjarez (D-124) and Justin Rodriguez (D-125), collectively four of the youngest members of the local state legislative delegation, discussed how public education, the budget, health care and other state issues affect large cities such as San Antonio.

Evan Smith, Texas Tribune CEO and editor-in-chief, moderated the Tribune event – a free, public discussion where attendees enjoyed a complimentary lunch and an hourlong talk on state issues between legislative sessions. The event also provided a platform for the four lawmakers, who are running for their current seats in this November’s general election; only Galindo among them has opposition.

Smith asked whether the current levels of state funding for public schools and other services are adequate for a growing, diverse city such as San Antonio. The Texas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a school finance case brought on by 600 public school districts statewide.

Bernal, a Democrat and former City Council member representing much of the city’s center core, called San Antonio an “economically segregated city” where socioeconomics and access to adequately supported schools are barriers for many people.

“I do worry about these things,” he added. Minjarez, a Democrat who represents the city’s West and Southwest sides, agreed.

“We should be focusing on how can get our public education funding up to par,” she added.

Galindo, a Republican whose district wraps around the western and southwestern edges of Bexar County, echoed some of Bernal and Minjarez’s comments, that state funding of public schools should be at a certain, adequate point, regardless of the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

“A lot of these kids are going to be in the workforce, and they need to be educated,” said Galindo. Rodriguez, a Democrat representing parts of the city’s West and Northwest sides, acknowledges that merely spending more money will not lead to improved performance among struggling schools or retention of most talented educators.

“It’s not going to solve all of our ills, but you can’t ask people to do more with less,” Rodriguez said. “We have to reprioritize spending if we are going to be a globally competing city.”

Bernal explained he and his legislative staff look for the local impact of state funding, talking with teachers and administrators in schools in his district about their needs, what works and what does not work, including services that schools provide to parents, their children and immediate community.

“If we give the right resources to the schools, that can really help,” he added.

In order to increase public education funding, money would have to be cut from other parts of the state budget, Smith said. He asked the four legislators what they would cut. Minjarez pointed to the $800 million that the Republican-majority legislature allocated toward border security last year. Minjarez said keeping the Texas-Mexican border secure is important, but that she and fellow lawmakers could better concentrate on school finance.

Galindo agreed to an extent, adding that securing the border is a federal issue, and that the state’s role in beefing up border security is not a priority for he or most of his constituents.

“School finance, annexation reform and mental health care are my priorities,” Galindo added. Rodriguez, too, said border security is not a high priority for he or his district.

“When people beat their chests about passing a conservative budget, keep in mind there are shortcomings (in the budget),” he said.

Smith asked about the funding of higher education, especially when all 14 institutions in the University of Texas system are set to see tuition hikes starting this fall. When UT regents made that decision in February, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized the move with a threat of the state retaking control of tuition rates at public universities.

“I don’t think public universities should raise their tuition if they can avoid it,” Bernal said. Rodriguez said the state should focus on other ways to make college more affordable.

“I would see the lieutenant governor more sincere if he and the (Texas) Senate would work with us on grants and tuition assistance,” he added.

Galindo said he considers higher education important, but that if the state is going to allocate more money to education, it must be toward kindergarten through 12th-grade education.

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez (D125) responds. Photo by Scott Ball.
State Rep. Justin Rodriguez (D125) responds. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We need to take care of K-12 first. Where I’m from, college isn’t always an option,” Galindo said, referring to parts of his district – such as the Southwest side), where many post-high school graduates may give trade schools and programs higher consideration.

Smith also asked about the effect of the nearly $4 billion in tax cuts contained in the last adopted state budget. For businesses, the legislature cut the state’s franchise tax rate by 25% with a pledge to phase it out. The legislature also gave homeowners a temporary property tax break, worth about $10/month for the average homeowner.

The lawmakers at Tuesday’s event agreed such tax cuts can help some individuals and businesses, but that they should be offset in some meaningful way.

“You take $4 billion out of the state coffers and give back $10 to the average homeowner, and yet we’ve got needs from infrastructure, public education to higher ed(ucation),” Rodriguez said.

“People need meaningful tax relief, but how are we going to better fund infrastructure and other things while our population is growing,” Minjarez added.

Galindo said he likely would not endorse eliminating the franchise tax, at least not in the next session: “With the needs we have now, we probably wouldn’t do it.”

The Texas Tribune is holding at one public discussion on state issues around Texas per week, seeking to raise awareness of these issues, and the level of voter participation.

“We have a problem of people not participating at the civic level in his state,” Smith said, citing recently data showing that Texas has had among the lowest voting-age participation rate of states that have hosted Democratic and Republican primaries this year.

Top Image: Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith introduces panelists to the event.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.