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Welcome to the funhouse

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Meanwhile, new Senate Education Committee chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, an aggressive advocate for school vouchers, last month outlined an education package that's a dream for conservative school reform pushers, and bound to define the fight over how we educate in Texas. While the details are still emerging, the plan includes a business tax scholarship that would let companies divert part of what they pay in taxes to a nonprofit that distributes needs-based scholarships to private schools. While it seems public schools could, technically, market themselves to get in on the action, opponents worry the program essentially pushes vouchers by another name, drawing public money into private schools.

Patrick still says some full-blown voucher proposal could end up in a forthcoming bill or proposal.

Budget Blues

While recession and the Tea Party revolution dealt us an austerity bomb last session, there's some reason to look at 2013 with tempered optimism, says DeLuna Castro with CPPP. State revenue forecasts are likely to surpass early projections by as much as $8 billion for the current biennium.

"If you assume they would be willing to spend the Rainy Day Fund … there just might be enough to undo most of the cuts we saw last session," she says. "But then they'd have to understand that in 2015, to keep everything going, you'll have to talk about new sources of tax revenue … And it seems like anything that postpones that day of reckoning, that's probably the route they'll take."

Apart from education, DeLuna says there are critical problems that need to be addressed and can't forever be put off. The state's transportation financing system is wholly inadequate for the state's needs, and advocates say continuing to shortchange road funding will lead to more congestion and expensive fixes later on.

Lawmakers got a serious wakeup-call this year when the Texas Water Development Board dropped a series of sobering figures in its 2012 State Water Plan. Failing to meet water supply needs could cost the state as much as $11.9 billion in lost income annually if current drought conditions persist. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, in a break from Gov. Rick Perry, has suggested drawing $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to help local governments develop reservoirs, desalination plants, and other projects recommended by the TWDB.

Rep. Villarreal tried last session to pinpoint where, exactly, lawmakers could scrub to find more revenue in lieu of shortchanging education and safety-net services. He broke out data on inefficiencies, flagrant corporate giveaways, and loopholes in the state tax code costing the state billions. This session, he's proposing the Lege create a citizen panel to review tax code, much like a Sunset review for tax wonks.

"This is a study bill, this is suggesting we regularly study every piece of the tax code to make sure it's up to date," he said. "This is about government transparency, this is about government effectiveness.

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