My grandfather was always a frugal man. He went to college on the G.I. Bill, he never owned a large house and he never drove a luxury car. By living under his means and investing wisely, he was able to build impressive wealth. As the years went on, he decided to move closer to his children in Houston. It was only a few years of living in Houston that he found that the property taxes were untenable for a retiree, so he accepted a lowball offer on his home and moved in with my parents. If one of the most fiscally responsible people I know could not manage his way around the absurd local government spending, then it is not a stretch to imagine many families feeling the strain as well.
The Texas Legislature is working on a plan to provide $18 billion in relief to taxpayers, but its lasting impact could be affected by out-of-control local government spending and soaring local debt, both of which are adding immensely to the financial burden on Texas families.
On the latter issue, there have been steps to better illuminate how much debt localities are incurring, but there are areas in which we can still improve. For example, it isn’t enough to know what the total debt is or how much it would raise taxes for families in the area. To make proper decisions about how things are financed, people should know how governments arrived at the amount of money they decided they needed to raise. Legislation authored by Rep. Brian Harrison would have required political subdivisions to show their math as to how they arrived at their debt figure, and to display this information on their homepage or under a page specifically designed to display debt information. Unfortunately, this idea did not survive the Regular session; but perhaps it might be something to consider in a future Special session.
Too, local governments often play word games to take advantage of a trusting public and wind up saddling them with more debt. Not long ago, Tyler ISD School Board President Wade Washmon that an $89 million bond package would not increase the district’s tax rate. While this is true, a report from TPPF explains that even with a steady tax rate “rising valuations will cause tax bills to rise.” The disingenuous nature of rhetoric surrounding bonds is one reason why TPPF fought to expand the requirement that all taxing entities make the following disclosure on every bond proposition ballot— “THIS IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE.” This policy prescription, manifested in one bill proposed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would have place this text on any proposition that seeks voter approval for “the imposition or increase of a tax.” This would have helped families who aren’t versed in the intricacies of property tax law by making it clear that new debt entails taking on new taxes.
Shining a light on hiring practices will also help curb government spending. Lobbying in and of itself is a perfectly acceptable way for citizens to address their government. However, it is wholly inappropriate for a government to use taxpayer money to push their own agenda. Data from the Texas Ethics Commission shows that local governments have spent $75 million in 2021 to hire lobbyists to push their agenda in Austin. Policy like 88(1) SB18 authored by Sen. Mayes Middleton would have prevented any political subdivision from using public funds to hire lobbyists. This would have not only decreased local spending by the amount they pay lobbyists but also save money on government expansion that might have occurred as a result of lobbying.
Opponents will say that local governments need the latitude to take on debt to keep up with the increasing demands of their populations. A reasonable argument could also be made that decision-making should be left in the hands of experts with privacy from the public. The problem is that this money does not belong to the government unless voters decide that it should. The façade of elections without information is a sham and these people are no more experts than each person that has had to put together their own budget. And local liberty always trumps local control.
People like my grandfather, who spent their lives spending and saving responsibly, should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Inflation is already eating into our standard of living, but that is beyond our control. What is within our control is allowing voters to make truly informed decisions about how their money is spent.