When the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant was on the drawing board, lots of communities didn't want a nuke in their backyard. But Somervell County decided it did.
Several decades ago, the county was among the state's poorest. By now you've probably heard the story of the county's transformation as the plant pumped tax money into this area. And you see the results in the beautiful school buildings, library and other public infrastructure.
Now, though, it seems that the State of Texas has forgotten that Somervell County took a risk that others wouldn't. Instead, some legislators see big dollar signs when they look at the county — and they are trying to take more and more of its tax money.
To be sure, the Texas Legislature is facing a dire financial situation — a $24 billion to $27 billion deficit over the next biennium. And, apparently, desperate legislators will do desperate things.
Glen Rose ISD Superintendent Wayne Rotan just got back from Austin where yesterday he testified before a Senate subcommittee. It was not a pleasant meeting. Legislators have downright hostile to Rotan because he heads a district that is one of fewer than 200 districtts considered “property wealthy.” GRISD is in better financial shape than just about any school district in Texas, in fact, because the board also had the foresight several years ago to sock away money just in case of bad times. And now those bad times are upon us.
Rotan and County Judge Mike Ford related their Austin stories Tuesday morning at a meeting of the community's Networking Group. A rapt audience listened as the two told of the tough new world of state finance and how it might filter down to school districts and counties.
Unfortunately, no one knows right now exactly what they're facing because the Texas Legislature hasn't passed any bill on the budget and isn't likely to until August. That makes it almost impossible for school districts and county to plan their budgets. But one thing is certain — there will have to be a lot of belt-tightening going on.
“The atmosphere down there (in Austin) is so incredibly prejudicial against GRISD and Somervell County,” Ford said. “Basically, they've been pretty ugly to Mr. Rotan.”
In fact, the county is “getting slapped around” a lot, Ford said. With only 5,500 registered voters, the county doesn't carry a big political stick.
“They don't mind slapping us around because we're not going to win them any elections,” Ford said.
GRISD has given a half a billion dollars to the state in recapture under the so-called “Robin Hood” school finance plan designed to equalize resources among Texas school districts. Because of the nuke, GRISD is considered a “Chapter 41” district that is subject to recapture, which means sending a large portion of its tax dollars to the state and not receiving anything back.
The legislature is looking at cutting $10 billion out of public education over the next two years and it's looking at Chapter 41 districts.
One Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Florence Shapiro of Plano, would mean the school district would lose 8 percent of its revenues. And that's the most positive one, Rotan said, since another version would mean a 19 percent cut for the district. But those are both better than the House's version, which would whack 65 percent. The House is scheduled to vote on its version of the bill today.
“It's hard to get excited about an 8 percent cut, but that's something we can handle,” Rotan said.
The state also could force the district to raise its tax rate, which currently is at 82 cents per $100 of appraised value of a county property. That's well below the state average of $1.06. Some legislators think the district's rate is too low, Rotan said. The maximum rate is $1.17. He said he is working on some “creative ways” to try to circumvent that since raising the tax rate just means that the state will get a bigger chunk of local dollars.
Which brings us back to Comanche Peak. The plant accounts for about 85 percent of the school district's revenues.
“They don't want to live next to it every day, but now everybody wants the money off of it,” Rotan said. “We were the ones wanting to assume the risks and make these choices. That's the message I've tried to convey to the House and Senate. There's got to be some economic benefits” to communities for having these industries such as nuclear plants, coal plants and refineries in their backyards.
Because it has a nuclear plant nearby, GRISD also faces extra expenses. It has to have the capability to evacuate all students and staff, which means it has to keep additional buses on hand.
Ford's message focused on cuts to Medicaid, which he said could cripple, if not close, rural hospitals and 80 percent of the state's nursing homes.
Cutting Medicaid has a cascading effect, Ford pointed out, because for every $1 the state spends, the federal government kicks in $1.50, magnifying any cuts. People on Medicaid , such as those who might be forced to leave nursing homes, would likely get their care in emergency rooms, “the most expensive care there is,” if funding is slashed, Ford said. “The hospital is on the razor's edge right now. All of a sudden, they're in jeopardy too.”
Ford urged taxpayers to contact state representatives and other officials to make their voices heard. Budget cuts WILL impact Somervell County. We can all count on that.
Here's the contact information for local representatives:
State Sen. Brian Birdwell
P.O. Box 12068
Austin, TX 78711
Bretta Conaway, District Director
1315 Waters Edge Drive, Suite 116-2
Granbury, TX 76048
Rep. Sid Miller
Room CAP GN.11 Capitol
P.O. Box 2910
Austin, TX 78768
6407 S. U.S. Hwy. 377
Stephenville, TX 76401