State Rep. Ken King: Across the Great Divide

BY RECORD EDITOR/PUBLISHER LAURIE EZZELL BROWN

We caught up with state representative Ken King last month after his return to Canadian from a grueling and contentious 30-day special session of the 85th Texas Legislature. King was enjoying a little time at home, “moving cows around” and trying to get some work done in his office at King Well Service, but took a couple of hours off to talk to The Record about what got done during those 30 days in Austin—and perhaps more to the point, what did not.

The special session was called by Gov. Greg Abbott, who gave lawmakers a list of 20 priorities, including increased benefits for retired teachers, improvements to school finance and property tax reform. At the top of the agenda was passage of a handful of sunset bills that would keep several state agencies from closing. Those bills had been left dangling at the end of the regular session, the victims of sharp divisions between the House and the Senate—both led by Republican majorities.

The House’s priorities for the special session were simple: school finance and funding for teacher retirement. Otherwise, King said, his job—and that of his fellow House members—was to “stand guard at the gate.”

It was a role they undertook with some success. “The Texas House certainly held the ground this session,” he said.

The process was a brutal one, though.

“You don’t sit on five committees and have every bill that’s on the governor’s call go through at least one of them, and not be busy,” King said. “I think I was home during the month of July maybe 72 hours, total.”

“We were working Saturdays, Sundays, and we had to be back on Monday,” he said. “It takes all day to get back here, so I didn’t get to go home much. Then we were trying to get [son] Kaleb to college at the same time.”

At the end of the day, he said, “We got what we needed done, done.”

School Finance

The divisions between the House and Senate, which had already appeared in the regular session, only widened during the special session. “The House laid out our priorities early on in the regular session,” King said. “It was school finance, roads and water. That’s what we worked on.”

The lieutenant governor’s priorities, he said, “were school vouchers, the bathroom bill and tax relief, that wasn’t tax relief. I mean, there was a huge divide.”

House Bill 21 was first introduced in the regular session by House Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty. It would have increased the basic allotment per student, provided transportation funding to all schools, increased the bilingual- and dyslexia-student allotments, and created a $200 million hardship grant for districts facing the loss of ASATR funding. However, it failed to pass because the Senate wanted to add voucher language, which met fierce resistance in the House.

During the special session, HB 21 was again voted out of the House, providing approximately $1.8 billion in new dollars for public schools, along with a $20 million hardship grant for ASATR districts. When it got to the Senate, King said, “They turned the House’s school finance bill into a $530 million school voucher bill, using borrowed money.”

I think people who promote school vouchers want public schools to fail. The more of them that fail, the better their argument is. Their argument for vouchers won’t help the people they claim it’s going to help. It certainly will do nothing for anybody up here.

With several of his districts confronting both the loss of ASATR and property value declines of as much as 70 percent due to the oil and gas downturn, King said financial relief was critical.

“Many school districts’ budgets were 100 percent dependent on ASATR because they were sending 100 percent or more of their M&O taxes to Austin [for recapture],” he said, offering Miami ISD as one example. “Miami is going to send 104-cents of every dollar they tax to Austin. Their ASATR payment would have been 100 percent of their budget. When it goes away, they’re not going to be able to pay that kind of recapture and survive.”

Miami is not alone. King said he represents four school districts—Miami, Fort Elliott, Gruver and Pringle-Morse—that have the potential to close. All received ASATR funding, and all pay a large percentage of their tax revenues to recapture.

When it finally passed the Senate and was signed by the Governor, HB 21 made far fewer changes, and only provided $311 million in additional school funding. But with any luck, the Hardship grants it did fund will keep several school districts doors from closing, King said.

CISD Superintendent Kyle Lynch reported last week that this district will receive a $1.102 million grant this year. Although there is some available funding next year before the Hardship grant expires the following year, he said, that grant will likely be about 20 percent of this one.

“While I am very appreciative,” Lynch said, “it is only about half of what we would have received if ASATR hadn’t expired.”

Lynch also noted that many schools around the state received either Hardship grants or funding from the Rapid Value Decline allowance—whichever represented the greater amount. “Rep. King worked tirelessly on both of these funding mechanisms,” he said, “and we are very appreciative of his efforts.”

Teacher Retirement

Both the House and Senate also approved bills that would put $212 million into the teacher retirement system to make the TRS-CARE health insurance more affordable for retired teachers, lowering their deductibles and premiums over the next two years. It was a boost that would only temporarily bolster a state-run program that has been failing for years.

“The problems with TRS-CARE go all the way back to 2005, when we had a surplus in that account,” King said. “We just kept spending that surplus, and basically giving them false hopes that their premiums were going to stay low forever, instead of gradually taking this one bite at a time.”

“That account’s broke now,” King said. “The state has a shortfall. It’s time to pay the fiddler…and it all hit at one time.”

Though they agreed on the need to help retired teachers, the House and Senate did not agree on how to fund it.

“The Senate wanted to do everything on borrowed money…using deferred payments to Medicaid, which is already in the hole,” King said. “The House, on the other hand, wanted to spend the surplus of the Rainy Day Fund.”

That fund, King explained, is capped at $10 billion. Any excess goes into general revenues. “[The use of ] that money is not governed, doesn’t have a specific purpose, and was expected to be about $2 billion above by the next biennium.”

That was a non-starter with both the Senate and Gov. Abbott, who refused to touch the Rainy Day Fund. The stage was set for a showdown.

In the end, King said, the House killed school vouchers, but conceded $60 million in charter school facility funding. The Senate held sway on funding TRS-CARE by deferring Medicaid payments, and passed HB 21.

“It was a compromise between the House and Senate,” he said. “If I was going to get ASATR money, they were going to get charter school money. That’s just how it went down.”

The bill also established a commission to study school finance, which will be comprised of five members each appointed by the governor, House speaker and lieutenant governor.

“That was a governor-thing,” said King. “My personal opinion is that we’ve been studying school finance for 40 years or longer. We know the right thing to do.”

“When Texas decides public schools are a priority,” he said, “we will fund them properly and right this mess of the school finance system.”

As for the commission? “I intend on being on it,” King said.

I think my work on the Public Education Committee is about more than saving our schools. Frankly, it costs less to educate than it does to incarcerate, and if you look at our present illiteracy rate, it will tell you who goes to prison. I want every kid to have the same equal educational opportunities provided. The state is down to 36 percent of funding for public education. The rest of it comes from communities like Canadian.

Property Tax Reform

Property tax reform was one of the 85th Legislature’s biggest losers—particularly because both governor Abbott and lieutenant governor Patrick made it their top priority, and it failed to pass. It drew vocal and heated opposition from local government officials around the state, who equated it to big government control of small government, saying it hampered their ability to responsibly manage the well-planned use of taxpayer dollars, and to respond effectively to the needs of their communities.

Along with many of his fellow House members, Rep. King was opposed to property tax reform as proposed in Senate Bill 2, which required local governments to hold automatic tax rate elections whenever they proposed property revenue increases over 4 percent. SB 2 died when the House refused to hear it.

The House responded with its own bill, but a Senate proposal to convene a conference committee on the bill to find a compromise failed, when the regular session ended without a deal. The issue fared no better in the special session, when the two chambers reached a stalemate, and the House abruptly adjourned sine die after sending the school finance compromise to the governor’s desk.

The very last day, all conference committee reports had to be signed and time-stamped by 4 pm. The lieutenant governor didn’t convene the Senate until 4:30 pm. Then he got on the news and said, ‘The House quit 27 early, and we’re still here doing the work of the people.’ No, that’s not what he did. He refused to convene before the deadline, and he refused to appoint a conference committee.

Rep. King believes school finance and property tax reform are inextricably intertwined—and that both can and should be addressed in the same bill. “If you want to give property tax relief to Texans, 68 percent of local property taxes that go to the state, go to recapture for school finance,” he said. “Not all that money goes to public schools, because it goes into general revenue and gets siphoned off here and there.”

He dismisses the caps on appraisal values and rollback rates as a fight between the Legislature and urban county governments. “I have not had one constituent come to me and say, ‘You need to cap our values at 4 percent,’” he said. “Not one.”

On the other hand, he said, “I’ve had multiple elected officials tell me, ‘We make our decisions based largely on oil and gas values, or what we know is coming in the next year. You can’t put handcuffs on us and have us make these decisions.’ I agree with that.”

King also believes the caps amount, in effect, to a statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional. Instead, he said, the state needs to focus on recapture. “When recapture started in 1993, 35 school districts paid all of that,” he said. “Now there’s 400. Our funding needs were different then. We had a million kids. Now we have 5.5 million, with 160,000 coming into our public schools per biennium.”

“How we fund our schools, and make sure that every kid is important—that’s the problem we’re facing,” he said. “Kids aren’t Republican or Democrat. They just have to go to school.”

From his experience serving on the Public Education Committee, King said, “I found out how little representation rural Texas has on the biggest check we write, and on our most important resource. I don’t know of anything we do in Austin that’s more important.”

King said he believes HB 21 is a great first step in fixing school finance, and hopes the Education Commission will focus on fixing recapture. “In so doing,” he said, “you’re not just addressing school finance. You’re addressing property tax reform.”

When my constituents tell me they want local control, they mean it. That’s how I try to represent them. I don’t necessarily think our county commissioners should run Hemphill County even like they would in Ochiltree County. They have another set of priorities, and they should be able to do that and take care of their county’s needs. If folks don’t like it, they get to vote those officials out.

The Bathroom Bill

The bathroom bill, which was also backed by both the governor and lieutenant governor, likewise failed to move in the special session. A key factor in its failure was House Speaker Joe Straus’ refusal to refer the bill to a House committee, which is the first step in the legislative process.

With the increased backing of the state’s business community, Straus held his ground, preferring instead to focus on bipartisan efforts like public school funding.

King opposed the bathroom bill, and from the feedback he’s gotten back home, he sees no reason to change that position. “There’s been people that live in this world by a different set of standards than I do for a million years,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to fix it.”

“And frankly, when our roads and our infrastructure are falling apart, we’re about to go into another major drought, and our schools aren’t properly funded, we’ve got serious problems,” he continued. “I don’t think we need to burn up our session talking about who goes to what bathroom. I just don’t.”

King called the bathroom bill “the mother of all unfunded mandates,” saying, “Who’s going to police this, and what do we do if we catch a transgender person in the wrong restroom? Are people going to have to carry their birth certificates around so they can prove it? It just goes on and on.”

Our superintendent should be able to police our school…without me telling him how. I don’t necessarily think the bathroom policy in Austin is going to be the policy in Canadian ISD. I just think this one size fits all on a myriad of subjects is a bad idea.

The Political Divide

While the divisions were stark during both sessions of the 85th Legislature, King chalked it up, in large part, to “25 extremists or nuts on the left, and 25 nuts on the right.”

“The problem with the super-majority of the Republican Party is, the 25 I’m talking about…that aren’t going to work with anybody,” he said. “It wouldn’t matter who the speaker is. They are obstructionists, and they don’t want to do anything good for Texas. They accomplish absolutely nothing.”

King’s theory is that service on a board of some kind should be a mandatory requirement for anyone planning to serve in public office. As a former Canadian YMCA board member and school trustee, he said, “I know I’ve got to figure out how to work with these eight other people. Then you just escalate it from there, and you get a sense of how your state Legislature or federal government works.” Or doesn’t, in some cases.

Cue the Texas Senate. “Lieutenant governor Patrick basically ran the Senate like a dictatorship, and if you didn’t go along, you didn’t get recognized, and your bills didn’t pass,” King said. “Our senator, Kel Seliger, held the ground in the Senate, and he paid the price for it. He took it on the chin to do the right thing for his district. He wasn’t rewarded for it.”

“I was doing the same thing,” King said, “but I wasn’t alone. I had some cover. I had colleagues who voted just like I did. It’s a little more comfortable when you have company.”

King’s opinion of Patrick is no secret. When the House adjourned sine die, Patrick dissed Speaker Straus for walking off the job, saying, “Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo. He might have been the first one over the wall.”

King said that was completely out of line, and returned fire by calling Patrick “a carpetbagger, who came from Maryland and changed his name to be in politics.”

“And he’s going to insult an eighth-generation Texan from San Antonio whose family founded the Republican Party in Texas?” King said. “That was just…uncalled for.”

King had kinder words for Gov. Abbott. While he was scathing in his opinion of Abbott’s “offer” to give Texas a teachers a $1,000 raise—paid for, of course, by local school districts—he gave the governor credit for listening to those same teachers when they marched on Austin.

“He didn’t want school district closing on his watch, nor did he want retired teachers going without insurance,” King said. “I told him, ‘Governor, if those are your priorities, then I’m your guy. You and I can work together on that.’”

King also praised Abbott’s leadership during the devastating wildfires earlier this year in the Texas Panhandle, and more recently in his response to Hurricane Harvey. “I will tell you. There’s two Greg Abbotts,” King said, “There’s the Greg Abbott that…is not always as politically astute as he might be, but then there’s the Greg Abbott that can take hold of a major disaster and stand out in front of it and lead. And that’s the one I voted for.”

“I think the politics was a little ugly during the session, and the division was more than most of us were used to,” King said. “But as of today…I think we have a good leader.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
You can read Rep. King’s complete 85th legislative session wrap-up here.

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