A new infection may be spreading through Texas like a brushfire — the Washington Monument Syndrome.
No, a virus has not been transmitted from our national mall to the San Jacinto Monument. The syndrome is a moniker coined back in 1969 when George Hertzog, then head of the National Park Service, was so unhappy with congressional funding that he closed the Washington Monument until he got his money. Now, Texas local governments are claiming that they will be forced to put public safety at risk if they cannot increase property taxes by more than 2.5 percent without voter approval.
In reality, there won’t be anarchy under this revenue trigger proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. There are ways that local governments can reduce criminal justice costs while protecting public safety.
Skyrocketing property taxes threaten Texans’ ability to stay in their homes, as shown by the 37 percent increase in the average Houston homeowner’s property tax bill since 2013. Voters deserve a voice on this, and local elected officials shouldn’t fear a public referendum on the merits of raising taxes beyond inflation.
Critics worry about unforeseen emergencies, but local governments can prepare by buying insurance to cover calamities, like a fire in a government building, and by creating and expanding their own versions of the state’s rainy day fund. In a state where some of our 254 counties have more cattle than people, the smallest jurisdictions can still have access to an adequate contingency fund by pooling together with other, similar counties.
There are several ways to reduce criminal justice costs incurred by local jurisdictions without compromising public safety. Unfortunately, most localities are refusing to implement a 2007 cite-and-summons law signed by then Gov. Rick Perry. This allows police to issue a ticket and notice to appear in lieu of arrest for certain misdemeanors, including driving with a suspended license, petty shoplifting and possession of small amounts of marijuana.
In the 2019 session, Texas lawmakers are considering reclassifying driving with a suspended license and possession of the smallest quantities of marijuana as Class C misdemeanors. As with speeding, these would typically result in a ticket. Avoiding arrest not only saves valuable police booking time, which can be refocused on deterring and solving serious crimes, but also averting county jail costs.
If these were dropped to Class C misdemeanors, counties would save millions of dollars in indigent defense costs. Appointment of counsel is only required under U.S. Supreme Court precedent if a jail sentence is possible.
Finally, lawmakers can address the largest contributor to jail costs by enacting bail reform. Senate Bill 628 will ensure that people who are not a danger to public safety don’t languish in jail before their trial solely because they cannot afford an arbitrary amount of money. Conversely, the bill will empower judges to detain the much smaller number of defendants who are so dangerous that there are no conditions under which they can be safely supervised in the community before their trial.
In calling for bail reform, Abbott aptly pointed to the horrific case involving murdered state trooper Damon Allen. The perpetrator shot Allen to death upon being released from jail on bail of $15,500, even though he had previously rammed his car into and assaulted other officers.
By changing the law so the court could have simply denied bail in that case, we can correct a system in which thousands of Texans stay in jail on nonviolent misdemeanor charges because they cannot post nominal bail amounts. This forces courts to release a smaller number of highly dangerous defendants who have money but are charged with the most serious crimes.
Given that many more defendants fall into the former category, bail reform will both relieve county jail costs and make us safer. Indeed, a study commissioned by the Texas Judicial Council found that moving to a system based on risk to public safety as called for in Senate Bill 628 would cut county costs per defendant by a third.
Protecting public safety is a core function of government, but it doesn’t require breaking the bank. Skyrocketing property taxes are tough on taxpayers and, despite doomsday prophecies by some local governments, there won’t be blood in the streets if they prioritize spending, just as Texas families must do.