Gambling: It’s for the Kids

I had never bought a lottery ticket before last Friday.  I grew up Baptist, you see, and you just don’t gamble. Or at the very least you don’t buy your scratch-offs in a part of town where anyone from your congregation might find out you had sinned.  But, I’ve never felt quite so down on my luck.  My highly publicized firing from a Houston radio station had me thinking “if ever there was a time to take a chance, this is it!”

While I tightly gripped my Mega Millions ticket, watching the winning numbers reveal themselves, educators around the Great State were resting easy in the knowledge that no matter how it turned out, millions of free bucks would be soon injected into their budgets.  All thanks to my participation in the tax on the mathematically challenged.

Suffice it to say I did not win. That made me feel bad.  But, the headline today sure makes a fella feel good:  “Cha-ching! Texas schools enjoy a nice payday from Mega Millions.”  Another headline asks whether the Mega Millions jackpot “helped Texas public schools?

As it turns out, the take for Texas public education is an estimated $37.5 million.  The problem is schools are kind of in a hole that’s bigger than that:  At least $5.4 billion.  That’s the amount the legislature slashed from public education for the two year budget cycle.

In the business of covering Texas education over the last decade, I can’t remember exactly how many people have called or emailed to ask whether the lottery was really supposed to fix school funding. I think the number of calls is right around 5.4 billion.  I’ll double check.  However many it was, I know this: People feel duped.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff has been crunching the numbers on just how bad the state budget could be when lawmakers get together again next year.  By Ratliff’s estimates, the state outspent its income by $27 billion over the last decade.  More than 170,000 Texas students are in crowded classrooms, according to Ratliff, a retired Republican.

The current Republican line on this is straightforward and easy to understand.  The dominant political party here says schools are important, but so is balancing the budget without raising taxes.  That makes sense to average folks who will tell you “If I can’t afford something, I just do without.”

Democrats are more nuanced.  They’ll tell you schools need to be fully funded but they never say “taxes should be raised.” Whether you agree with it or not, that would make sense and be the opposite of what Republicans say.  But, the fact is almost no one in Texas ever says taxes should go up, even if it’s what they mean. 

The opposition to the Republican majority will often talk about “closing tax loopholes,” or “making tough choices.”  They could go with something a little stronger like “Dumb kids are bad for the economy” or “We’re cultivating a crop of future welfare recipients.”  If there’s one thing average Texans won’t abide, it’s more welfare recipients.

One of those “tough choices” would be to talk straight with people.  If an industry enjoys a “tax loophole” and virtually every player in that industry utilizes that loophole, what’s really happened is they got a tax cut.  Conversely, if you “close that loophole,” you are raising their taxes.  That’s plain. That’s simple.  I’m not sure if voters don’t want to hear that but it’s clear politicians don’t want to say it.

Voters, and by extension their elected representatives, will have to make real decisions on school funding.  Raise taxes?  Approve casinos?  Cut schools even further?

The lottery “helping public education” makes us all feel good, but it’s just a game and the gains for schools only go so far.  The game of politics is what’s really costing the kids.  It’s time for the grownups to stop playing around.

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