Seventy-four percent of Texans live in 4 percent of Texas. It’s a fact, verified by the folks at PolitiFact.
HOW CAN THAT BE?
Most of us live in cities. And all the cities in Texas take up only 4 percent of its surface.
If by “cities” you’re thinking Houston or Dallas, you’re right. But if you’re thinking Three Rivers or Monahans, you’re still correct. What they all have in common are elected city governments, property taxes, fees for services, and local ordinances.
What you should know about all Texas cities, including yours or the nearest one to you if you live out in the country, is that they are under attack. So is your county government.
WHO DECLARED WAR?
Your Texas Legislature is in session and part of its agenda during this session is to take away a lot of the power your local governments wield by tradition.This agenda is based on a prevailing attitude that local governments tax you too much, overstep their authority, and basically just don’t have your best interests in mind.
You may agree with some or all of that. But you may also want to ask yourself what your state government has done for you lately and whether it has done it any better than what your local government does for you.
HOW IS THIS WAR WAGED?
The Texas Municipal League has flagged an unprecedented 150 bills in the Legislature it sees as threats to local governance.
One of the biggest is the proposal to require an automatic rollback election for any property tax hike above 3.5 percent. Currently, the limit is 8 percent and voters have to petition for a rollback election.
The election requirement all but guarantees a 3.5 percent cap on hikes because in addition to the expense of the election, it would occur after the deadlines for passing budgets and setting tax rates. This is a potentially huge limit on decision-making at the local level.
Many mayors and county judges across Texas — many of them conservative Republicans just like the folks who hatched this plan — are against it. That’s because this bill would impede their ability to meet their responsibilities to you — responsibilities that aren’t going away.
But probably the most indicative of the disconnect between local and state elected officials is a bill that would prohibit local governments from using public funds to lobby the Legislature.
On face value, that might sound like a good thing. But consider what would happen if cities can’t lobby against bills that are bad for them but good for private industries that still are free to hire all the expensive lobbyists they can afford. You and your family could find yourselves living in a more polluted, less safe, more expensive city because those industries will be less taxed and regulated.
We can only hope that if this bill passes, it will fail a First Amendment test. Remember that money, according to the Supreme Court, is speech.
In the meantime, you might want to look up the 48 House and Senate sponsors to see if your state senator and representative are among them.
Past Legislatures have been pushing expenses down to the local level for years, to avoid raising taxes and fees at the state level. Hence, the problem of rapidly rising property tax — local government’s first and biggest option for paying for what the state won’t.
This Legislature set two priorities at the beginning of the year — school finance reform and property tax relief. The two are closely related because most of your property tax bill goes to your school district. Those priorities were a good call, especially school finance because it is widely acknowledged to be an inadequate, unfair mess.
But from the looks of things, expect a duct-tape job on school financing, at best, and a likely failure on property tax relief. To the House’s credit, it voted to tie property tax relief to school finance to prevent the Legislature from shirking the harder job.
But this Legislature frittered away too much valuable time on those 150 bills flagged by TML, and on attention-getting divisive social issues too numerous to list but that Texas can do without.
The Legislature wants to save you from the people who provide your pavement, parks, swimming pools and libraries, and who take responsibility for your children during most of their waking hours most of the year.
You may want to consider which level of government is serving you and which is failing you. You also may want to ask why they aren’t working together for what should be common goals. You deserve answers.