This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 18, 2016.
It has been observed that as morality subsides, law rises to take its place.
Most people generally want to be good neighbors. But some folks just don’t care. They have little interest in conforming their habits to the community’s sensibilities.
Whereas in the not-too-distant past, the fear of shame could encourage good behavior, today it’s city ordinances, threat of civil lawsuits and police that maintain order — that or you can move to a neighborhood with a homeowners association where in every neighbor lurks a dictator’s heart.
Americans have historically taken a dim view of government agents telling them how to live and basically bossing them about. Back in a 1776, we complained that King George “… erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people. …”
Heaven help Jefferson if he had happened to live in Austin. Our evolution might never have launched. Rather than pen the Declaration, he’d have appealed to Britain to restore his proper rights as an Englishman.
The city of Austin has created its own version of a swarm of officers, though unlike King George’s swarm, they apparently don’t require training.
A draft report from the city of Austin titled “Consistency of Austin Code Investigations and Resolutions Audit” finds that “25 out of 70 (or 36 percent) of field and division management staff do not meet the current, more stringent, minimum qualifications now required by the department.” Further, the audit found that of 306 code complaints examined, there were shortcomings found in about 77 percent.
Recall that among the city of Austin’s burgeoning code enforcement officer duties are enforcing rules for short-term rentals, garage conversions, hauler for hire (regulations over taking windstorm debris out of someone’s backyard for pay) as well as more mundane health and safety issues. Thing is, the audit found that the city of Austin was itself a threat to its citizens, as noted on Page 7: “Finding 2: Investigation and resolution practices relating to city-owned properties often differed from established Austin Code policies and procedures, which may allow violations on city-owned property to persist and negatively affect citizen safety.” The audit further found delayed investigations when city property was the focus, along with “less extensive (investigations of city property) than the requirements prescribed in policy.”
Translated from auditese, the city’s official policy could be summed up as, “Do as we say, not as we do.”
The auditors even found a lack of protections against self-dealing among the code corps such that field staff could be called upon to investigate their own property. (Nothing to see here citizen, move along. …)
The problems at City Hall bring to mind a poll on trust in state government conducted by Gallup and released two months ago. Gallup found that an abysmal 25 percent of Illinois residents had confidence in their state government vs. 81 percent in nation-leading North Dakota. Texas was tied for 13th place with Alaska, with 64 percent of Texans trusting in their state government.
Gallup cross-indexed its findings with both the size of a state and its geography, finding broadly that states with a smaller population and states in the West were more trusted on the whole than were larger states and states out East. Missing from Gallup’s analysis was the connection between states with large state and local tax burdens and low trust.
The 14 states with the lowest trust ratings levied an average of 10.2 percent of state income in combined state and local taxes in 2012, according to the Tax Foundation. The 14 states with the highest confidence rankings, among them Texas, taxed at an average of 8.7 percent. The national average was 9.9 percent. Proportionately, the tax burden in the low trust states was 17 percent higher than in the states where their residents trust state government the most.
These findings conform to common sense: The more government taxes to do more, the more government does poorly, the lower the citizens hold their government in regard.
This raises questions about Austin, home to some of Texas’ highest taxes. High taxes levied on a healthy tax base allow for a large government footprint. This allows for all kinds of things for government to get involved in, from seemingly endless attempts to build or expand urban rail systems to maintaining a staff of inadequately trained code inspectors empowered to harass the population.
The city of Austin would do well to do less and do it better.
DeVore is a vice president with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served for six years in California’s Legislature.