Archive for April, 2011

Do what you said, legislature

The budget debate is in full gait in Austin. Texas legislators are wrestling with a gargantuan gape between projected revenues and expenses. It’s the kind of legislative session that reminds you just how narcissistic politicians are. Why else would they subject themselves to such torture!?!

The House of Representatives has passed a budget that reduces state spending by $23 billion. The Senate is working on one that reduces spending by $11 billion. Every beneficiary of state funds under the sun is trolling through the capitol corridors begging for mercy.

In particular, public education funding is again testing bright and well-meaning minds. It always does.

On one hand you have those who say that Texas education has been underfunded for decades and that “draconian” cuts now will be a death knell. On the other hand are those who say we now spend more per student than ever but that raw spending and student performance do not correlate.

Education is the great democratizer. An educated workforce is a – if not “the” – crucial key to economic progresses and standard of living increases. To a large extent, Texas has recognized this truth and has standardized educational opportunities across the state over the last two decades. The “equity” debates have long subsided.

However, we live in a dynamic state where 75,000 new students (net) come into the school system every year. We also live in a state where many parents can not or do not provide for their children. More than half of public school students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

Uphill battle is an understatement. Walk in the park it is not.

In 2006, the legislature decided to fund public education less with local property taxes and more with state business taxes. The philosophy: Who should be more interested in having an educated workforce than the business community? It will be cheaper to give a child basic skills on the front end than to re-train a grown worker on the back end.

Unfortunately, the business tax has not raised as much revenue as it was projected to. The economic downturn is part of the reason. Regardless, one of my core principles of governing applies here: Government should do what it says it’s going to do.

If the legislature said it would raise $6 billion for public education through a business tax, it needs to do so.

The tax ensures that all entities which enjoy the privilege of transacting business in the world’s 11th largest economy are contributing to its intellectual health. Make the tax more equitable. Raise the rate if you have to. Put a cap on it so we won’t get fat in good times, but do what you said you were going to do.

Revising the business tax would raise an additional $2 billion for public education. It won’t fill the whole budget hole, but it will increase government’s credibility and remind the business community of its responsibility to invest in a prepared employee base.

Good Friday to you

The bumper sticker read, “If you want a country ruled by religion, move to Iran.” I could tell by other stickers on the car that the message aimed derisively at the so-called religious right. I took no offense, though at times I associate and agree with said group.
I took no offense because like the car’s driver, I have no desire for a country ruled by religion. I no more want President Obama or Speaker Boehner to craft my children’s prayers than the man in the moon. God calls parents, not politicians, to impress his commandments on their (and his) children. See Deuteronomy 6.

Still, we need religion in the public square. Better still, we need leaders with relationships with their creator. We need leaders whose faith can’t be compartmentalized to an hour on the weekend or a day out of the year. Even in a pluralistic society. Even in 2011. Especially then, in fact.

This weekend can remind us that heaven-earth relationships are possible. Therefore, this week I dust off my ministry degree as I do a few times a year to write about that which rises above politics: he who rose from the dead.

One of my favorites parts of the Easter story is when Mary Magdalene mistakes the resurrected Jesus for a cemetery gardener. Isn’t that just like us, we blurry-eyed humans? Desperately looking for what can save us, then finding it, then thinking it something else. It’s comical, really, our frailty.

“Sir,” she says. “If you have carried [Jesus] away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

“No, you won’t get me,” the Christ probably thought. “I am not where they have put me.”

He rarely is. We blurry-eyed humans have put him in a lot of places over the centuries, square inside many boxes. We don’t get him more often than we do.

Like when we put him with clean-cut preachers and he ends up with rough, shady and sinning types. It isn’t the healthy, he reminds us, that need a doctor.

We don’t get him when he shows up as hungry, thirsty, strange, sick or imprisoned. Or as an immigrant landscaper with an indecipherable tongue. A mere gardener, if you will.

How you treat these, he said, is how you treat me, the King of Heaven, the Gardener of Eden.

Jesus once described his heavenly father as a gardener tending a vine, removing the lifeless, refining the living. Oh, to be counted among the living, to receive humbly the pruning of the Good Shearer.

It would resurrect our relationships, improve our politics, and elevate our land – not to a country ruled by religion but to a people shaped by sacrifice.

President Wonderful

The war that was hardly civil started 150 years ago this week. The War Between the States (or the War of Northern Aggression as my Alabama kinfolk call it) was not the first rebel vs. loyalist conflict on American soil.

Only four score and five years earlier, colonial patriots rejected the governance of the British crown because of the latter’s intrusion into the former’s affairs and accounts. History repeated itself in April 1861, when secessionists reached a tipping point and resisted their American central government. One could argue it was in their blood.

The bloodiest years of our nation’s history ensued. I have sympathies for both sides.

Though raised south of the Mason-Dixon, I named one of my sons after Abraham Lincoln. He bound up the Union and set captives free. Both were right to do. Both were noble missions, divine callings. Neither was government overreach, though I can understand it felt as much to a business owner whose business model and livelihood were being threatened.

Today, another president from Illinois isn’t satisfied with the freedom Lincoln ordered. He wants to care for all citizens from cradle to grave. He likely considers it a divine calling. Many consider it government overreach. Either way, it pushes us toward civil division.

I once gave my wife a gag gift: a talking doll named Mr. Wonderful. He was nicely dressed with full, dark hair. With the push of a button, he said unbelievably sensitive things like, “Here, honey; you take the remote tonight,” and “I don’t know where I’m going; let me stop to ask for directions.”

It hit me during his promised-laden budget speech this week: Barack Obama is President Wonderful. He simply added fiscal discipline to the federal government’s ever-growing list of things to do.

From high-speed Internet to health care access, from new roads to old-fashioned defense, from unemployment to retirement checks, from preschool to college to workforce training, no spending opportunity missed his purview.

Any other view of America is “deeply pessimistic,” he said, and disregards the “basic social compact” Americans have with each other.

In fine political fashion, the only government spending President Wonderful berated was that which Republicans orchestrated: prescription drugs for seniors. Mysterious criticism, considering he cared so much for seniors throughout the rest of his speech. He referenced Social Security eleven times, Medicare eighteen times.

Ultimately, President Wonderful wants to make the millionaires and billionaires pay “a little more.” News to President Wonderful: there aren’t enough xillionaires out there both to pay for your version of the American social compact and to repay our debts. Little people will pay, too.

As Lincoln knew, freedom for all is the American way. Government’s forcing a woman to “care for her neighbor” through tax and spend policies is not. It’s the European infatuation of a liberal idealogue.

As at other times in our nation’s history, a growing sum is willing to stand up to stop it.

Kevin W. Thompson is a former chief of staff in the Texas House of Representatives and is now Vice President of Texas Heritage Bank. Subscribe to his columns at

Vouching for old and young alike

When only an airline flight stands between a boy and the end of a family vacation, the words “oversold” and “voucher” are music to his ears.

A prolonged stay, a delayed return, one more night in a hotel, the prospect of doing it all in again next year. These are sights for sore eyes and thoughts for bored minds.

Who doesn’t like a voucher? What recipient bemoans a gift card? Unlike a prepackaged gift, gift certificates offer both resources and freedom. They provide banks on a river to guide your decision while offering latitude to choose. And unlike a blank check, they offer solvency for the giver. They limit spending.

Governments often employ such tools when delivering services. Programs formerly known as food stamps provide resources to low income families. Food vouchers can be used with a certain amount of discretion.

Recipients can choose HEB or Wal-Mart, but not Best Buy. They are not forced into Government Grocery. Such coercion would seem undignified, un-American.

U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has recommended health insurance vouchers for retirees as a means to solve Medicare.

Rather than paying for senior citizen health care with the equivalent of a blank check (an unsustainable proposition as the nation ages), his plan would give an individual generous but limited resources ($15,000 per year) with which to a select a health care plan that meets her needs and wants.

The plan aligns taxpayer and tax user incentives by putting an onus on seniors and their caretakers to spend resources wisely. Health care vouchers are a way out of the Medicare train wreck that is approaching. They deserve consideration.

No public policy voucher discussion would be complete without an argument for and an update on “freedom scholarships” (i.e., school choice).

Advocates of trusting parents with education funds are finding ways to get kids out of burning educational houses. For example, in Arizona a person can receive a tax credit for contributing to organizations that offer scholarships for private schools.

This law received (barely) a Supreme Court stamp of approval this week. Antagonists had curiously claimed that the law was tantamount to Congress’ establishing a religion.

Astonishingly, four of nine Supreme Court justices, including President Obama’s two appointees, agreed with the plaintiffs. Note to non-profits: your tax-exempt status may be in jeopardy if these four get a fifth.

Elsewhere, New Jersey lawmakers are presently contemplating a similar measure, offering to give corporations tax breaks in exchange for paying students’ tuition at non-government schools. Indiana and Pennsylvania also have school choice legislation moving through their legislatures.

In Pennsylvania, opponents can not make the same argument they made in 1996 when then-Governor Tom Ridge proposed the idea. At that time, they claimed lack of school funding, not lack of school choice, was the reason for poorly performing schools.

In the last 15 years, education spending in Pennsylvania has doubled to more than $13,000 per student per year according to the Commonwealth Foundation. Unfortunately, student achievement has remained flat during that period.

It appears Pennsylvania students and schools need new advocates to vouch for them.

Kevin Thompson is a former chief of staff in the Texas House of Representatives and is now vice president at Texas Heritage Bank. He can be reached


Barbering a beast

The Texas Legislature has embarked on the budgetary equivalent of trimming a woolly mammoth. The House’s version of the new state budget comes up for debate today in Austin. If you hear roars from the north, you’ll know the beast got nicked. 

Among the governor and legislative leaders, a broad consensus has agreed not to raise taxes. Budgeteers have been “surgical” in reducing 12.5% from last biennium’s budget, as Higher Education Committee Chairman and my former boss Rep. Dan Branch put it.

But why cut something as important as education at all? Why not raise taxes? Because the families of the very kids we are trying to educate would have fewer resources to prepare them for education.

Then why not tax just the rich? Because the heads of the families of the very kids we are trying to educate work for and buy stuff from “the rich.” “The rich” will simply pass on any tax increases to their customers in the form of higher prices or to their employees in the form of lower wages and benefits.

Besides, some spending areas need not just a scalpel, but a sickle. Take education middle management, for example.

As it should, more than half of the state budget goes toward public and higher education. Way more than half of those budgets go to payroll. How much of those payrolls goes to educators on the front lines? Less than before.

Public sector leaders often gain perceived influence by expanding the sizes of their staffs. As a result and over time, layer upon layer of management strata fill school district and higher ed administrative offices.

Before long, we have vice provosts and assistant superintendents for every category under the lamp of learning. Periodically, we need to throw darts at the organizational charts.

Texas Tech University President Guy Bailey did. Last week, he summarily eliminated several middle management administrators including the Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs and the Vice President for Student Affairs and External Relations. The cuts will save the school half a million dollars a year.

In the private sector, middle managers are always the first to go in a slowdown. Owners and executives don’t fire themselves, and they don’t first release workers on the front lines, those who actually produce a product. Similarly, superintendents and university presidents should protect most those who have direct educational impacts on students: the teachers.

As the sign in my mother’s public school classroom said, “Old teachers never die; they just lose their class.” Some would add, “Bad teachers never die; they just get promoted to central office.”

Guy Bailey has the right idea: first cut the middle managers with the really long titles. Still, it appears he has some work to do. He reassigned some duties of the people he fired to the Vice Provost for Institutional Diversity and Undergraduate Education. No April Fool’s.

Kevin Thompson is a former chief of staff in the Texas House of Representatives and is now vice president at Texas Heritage Bank. He can be reached at

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