"Local control right now in the Texas Legislature is on life support, and it is one of the most troubling things I have seen," said State Senator Kel Seliger Tuesday, December 10, before a group of voters in the Dumas/Moore County Chamber of Commerce. The senator was in Dumas as part of a series of town-hall meetings he was having across the 31st District to discuss developments from the 86th Texas Legislature and issues facing the Texas Panhandle.
Seliger touched on a number of issues Tuesday, but he was most passionate about his disagreement with many of his fellow Republicans in Austin who, he says, want to shift power from local school boards, cities, and counties and centralize it in Austin. "As Republicans, we are the party of smaller government, but not now, not today in Austin," he said.
Seliger said the 86th Legislature that ended in June was "a significant session of the legislature, some of the most sweeping things we have done in public education since 1993." He said he was generally in favor of the increases in state money to education that the legislature passed, increasing the state's share of the bill for public education to 48 percent. Seliger has long called for the state share to be 50 percent, which he said would have been possible this year. "There was enough money to do that."
Seliger was not so thrilled by the caps on increasing revenue from local property taxes that the legislature imposed on school boards, cities, and counties. In exchange for the increase in state money, the legislature reduced the amount of revenue school districts could raise from local property taxes this year, and, in future, they will not be able to increase revenue from local property taxes more than two and a half percent without triggering an automatic election. The legislature also mandated a $5,000 raise for every teacher. Cities and counties will trigger an automatic election with a revenue increase of three percent.
Seliger said that while the session was billed as being about public education, it was really more about decreasing taxes, and he said he was skeptical about how much the average voter will really save by the legislature's actions. "I am always in favor of decreasing taxes, but there is a wrong way and a right way," he said. "I am the only one in the legislature who has decreased taxes on a local level and a state level. You do not need the State of Texas to reduce your taxes." Seliger says power to set local property taxes should remain in the hands of local school boards, cities, and counties. Voters have the option of voting for people who will reduce their taxes to zero, if they want, he said, but they will still have to find a way to fund police, fire, and other services. "That is what we have taxes for; those things cost money," he said.
Seliger said he did not think local governments and school boards were created just to "sit back and wait for Austin to tell them what to do."
He said he supported increasing teacher pay. "It is always a good idea. We must pay teachers more, or we will not have enough teachers or the quality of teachers we need." But, he said, instead of mandating a $5,000 raise for every teacher, it would have been better for the state to take the money allocated for the teacher pay raise and send it to the districts and let local school boards and superintendents determine how to use it. "That is what superintendents and school boards are for, to make those decisions," he said.
"The deal is, us (the legislature) reducing property taxes is part and parcel of this anti-local control thing that just disturbs me no end," said Seliger, who served as mayor of Amarillo before becoming a state senator. "I have a real bias. I grew up in a Republican Party that was the party of smaller government, and I never got over it." He said the legislature, controlled by Republicans, had raised spending from $215 billion to $250 billion this year. "If Washington came down and said you have to have an election to increase state spending above 5 percent, people in Austin would just go berserk. They would just go nuts -- for good reason. That is where we misfired."
Seliger's independence from party leaders in Austin, especially Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, resulted in his losing his membership in the Education Committee and his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee.
Among the other topics Seliger addressed that are important to Panhandle residents was transportation. He said he was glad the state is spending more on highways across the state now, but, "We have to fight the people on the I-35 corridor to get our share of the money. It is time to get a whole lot more progress done on the northern parts of US 87 and 287." "We are going to have that conversation." He said roads were critical for the economy of the Panhandle.
On healthcare, he said two of the biggest challenges facing Panhandle communities are the lack of physicians in rural areas and the increasing cost of health care. He supports efforts to increase the use of telemedicine as a way of bringing access to health care to more people and reduce costs. "Telemedicine will be one of the keys to the future," he said.
On a particularly local Dumas note, J.L. Wiswell came to the event to thank Seliger for his support of the so-called "Beer-to-Go Law" that passed the legislature this year that allows craft breweries to sell their beer directly to customers without having to go through a distributor. Texas was the last state to prohibit direct sales for off-premises consumption. Wiswell is in the process of converting the old Phillips and Son building on Dumas Avenue and Seventh Street into a craft brewery and pub.