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Texas Governor Preaches the Gospel of Finance Equity

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DALLAS--Clad in scarlet robes, the choir members at the Good Street Baptist Church here render a slow, resonant version of "God Is Not Through Blessing You.'' The hymn has barely faded when Gov. Ann W. Richards steps to the pulpit and asks the congregation for a different kind of blessing.

It is the second of three stops at predominately black Baptist churches in south Dallas and the middle of a weekend campaign swing that is taking the Governor from Houston to El Paso. Her plea to the Good Street congregation is simple: Vote on May 1.

"I'm here on a mission because the future of the state of Texas relies on the voters May 1,'' she says from the pulpit. "I know you don't want to go to the polls again and that there are other things to do--pleasures to be had, laundry to be done, groceries to be bought, friends to be cared for--but this vote is crucial.''

Ms. Richards has become the leading force in a $1.5 million campaign to persuade voters to approve a school-finance amendment in the upcoming special election. Seeking to move beyond the judicial finance-equity mandates that have overshadowed the legislature throughout her tenure, the Governor has put her popularity and fund-raising muscle behind the initiative.

Even so, as her weekend trip to small audiences in Houston and Dallas showed, backers of the state's latest effort to reduce spending disparities between rich and poor school districts are fighting hard to win over voters.

"I need you to tell this story everywhere you go,'' the Governor urges the Good Street parishioners. "Help me keep the children of Texas going to school.''

Breakthrough or Nightmare

Nearly 25 years after a lawsuit was filed challenging the state's school-finance system, Texas appears on the brink of either a breakthrough or a potential nightmare.

If passed, the constitutional amendment would allow lawmakers to pass a finance system that relies on regional property-tax sharing, under which local wealth from more than 1,000 school districts would be consolidated into about 200 county taxing authorities. With the constitutional change, many leaders anticipate that the system would pass court muster.

If the measure fails, however, lawmakers will have only a month to come up with an alternative before running up against a June 1 deadline set by a state judge, who has already declared that he will shut off state school funding if an acceptable finance system has not been passed.

On its face, the campaign seems lopsided. The well-financed Save Our Schools, which is staffed and backed largely by familiar faces from the Democratic Governor's campaign and administration, has found some Republican and business support. Its strategy includes an extensive statewide media campaign.

The opposition, meanwhile, consists of a handful of grassroots organizations putting on local events against what they describe as a "Robin Hood'' plan. A Dallas-based group is concentrating on fund-raising, but, as of last week, it was still working to raise the $250,000 needed for its initial statewide mailing.

In her appearances, Ms. Richards has done her best to simplify the issue, only hinting at the court's promise to cut off state funding for schools--a threat that polls show does not scare many voters. But observers say much more is at work as the election approaches.

Also on the ballot May 1 will be an amendment banning unfunded state mandates on school districts, as well as a proposal asking voter approval for $750 million for school construction already passed by the legislature. (See story, page 1.)

Political Repercussions

If the school-finance initiative is rejected, analysts suggest, it would have repercussions well beyond the possible court intervention.

Observers say Ms. Richards, who came into office amid optimism that her leadership would help Texas tackle many nagging problems, could be weakened if the finance situation drags on as her 1994 re-election campaign begins to gear up.

"There is a lot of politics in this deal, and I don't want you to misunderstand,'' the Governor says at a stop at the New Hope Baptist Church. "There are people who say that if we can't solve the public school problem, I've done a bad job. It is a crying shame that the children of Texas are being used in an adult political game.''

More important than her own political fate, Ms. Richards emphasizes, is that the image of the Lone Star State could be severely tarnished if the court makes good on its threat.

"It is the wrong message to send to the nation, and it is certainly the wrong message to send to these children,'' she tells New Hope members.

Later, in an interview in the church's parking lot, Ms. Richards said the crucial task of amendment supporters is to get voters to the polls.

"People feel that one election runs into another and that the campaigns never stop, and over time their attention spans get shorter and shorter,'' she said. "This election is going to be determined by who votes, not the issue itself.''

"There is no question in my mind that people are for it,'' the Governor said. "If I can get them one on one, no problem. But there's just one of me.''

Shooting Down 'Robin Hood'

Opponents are finding that the active role of the Governor and other top state officials has overshadowed their arguments.

One person who is struggling against the amendment's heavyweight support is Nancy Kessling, whose 10-year-old son is taping a poster to the family station wagon's raised cargo door.

The blown-up copy of the constitutional amendment is only part of the anti-initiative material displayed outside a Houston fieldhouse where the Governor is preparing to speak.

"I don't have a problem with giving money to poor school districts, I just don't think this is the way to do it,'' Ms. Kessling, the founder of a group called Coalition for Open Government, said while holding a poster depicting the finance plan as a mousetrap slamming shut on a taxpayer. "The legislature could have worked harder and done a better job. All this is going to do is lead us to a state income tax.''

"The problem is that every time this debate comes up, it gets overrun by politics instead of substance,'' added Bill Ceverha, the treasurer of the Dallas-based Citizens to Stop Robin Hood Taxes on Property.

A former state representative who now works as a Republican fund-raiser, Mr. Ceverha said voters should send a message on May 1 that lawmakers need to try again.

"Logic tells you that we have a sorry, broken system, but all Robin Hood does is to pour more billions into it,'' he said. "What we need is to go back to ground zero, eliminate our convoluted system, and build a formula that works.''

Mr. Ceverha said the state needs to take a larger role in funding schools, rather than squeezing more out of local property taxes. Further, he argued, a solution needs to include programs that will improve the schools.

To make that case, the group last week held airport rallies and press conferences in 10 cities. Along with a number of Republican organizations, it rallied this month in Austin. Beyond the brochure they were planning to mail, officials are hoping to buy television advertisements.

Money has been hard to come by, Mr. Ceverha charges, partly because the Governor has used her political clout to discourage business contributions to the opposition.

"They have gotten their arms twisted pretty severely,'' he said.

'Get Off the Dime'

But if the amendment's top supporters have been bullies behind the scenes, the Governor presents a different image on the campaign trail.

At the Houston rally, organizers had expected a crowd of about 2,000. Instead, barely 200 showed up in addition to two marching bands, two elementary school choirs, an elementary drill team, and a color guard.

Rather than blaring her speech to a mostly empty hall, the Governor invites the children present to sit in front of the podium and let her explain what all the fuss is about.

"School finance is a big phrase that's hard to understand and, to you, it probably doesn't mean a lot,'' she begins. "But the central issue here is opportunity for you children.''

Ms. Richards asks the children to urge their parents to vote. She also attempts to paint the opposition in terms the younger members of her audience can understand.

"You know what a dark cloud is?'' she asks. "Well, we've got a lot of bad-mood guys going around saying things about this constitutional amendment that are not true. You know how on the playground there are always people who just want to cause trouble and are always saying, 'nyah, nyah,' no matter what? That's what we're dealing with. Some people grow up and stay that way.''

Later in Dallas, she voices frustration with opponents who have been unable to come up with their own school-finance solution.

"They have not been able to get the votes or support to do anything else,'' she says at the Friendship-West Baptist Church. "I'm saying it's time to get off the dime and do something for the schoolchildren of Texas.''

Voters' Mixed Feelings

But many voters clearly have yet to feel the urgency of the debate.

On an athletic field in quaint Waxahatchie, south of Dallas, Lynn Lewis coaches his baseball team of 9- and 10-year-olds as the setting sun draws practice to a close.

The father of four, Mr. Lewis said he planned to vote against the finance amendment, mostly because he sees little need to reshuffle local taxes.

"If I can see the results in Waxahatchie, I would want to pay for it, but not if it's going somewhere else,'' said Mr. Lewis, who works as an air-conditioning specialist for Southwestern Bell in Dallas.

"Most of the people I talk to have the same feelings,'' he added. "I don't like a judge telling me where my tax money has to go. That's what elected officials are for.''

At an opposite end of the field, Gary Hale, who also commutes to Dallas for his job as a safety supervisor, said he has not decided how to vote on the finance amendment.

"I personally don't see any problem with it as long as my taxes don't keep going up,'' he said. "I'm all for education for any kid, I don't care who it is, but there is so much waste in schools.''

"I haven't thought about how I will vote,'' Mr. Hale explained. "I have mixed feelings about it.''

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