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Texas Cities' and Counties' Taxpayer-Funded Happy Hour Is Over - Almost

Texas Insider

It’s 5:55 in the ol’ p.m., and Happy Hour is winding down; however, a number of us are happy as ever; so set ‘em up, Joe, and slip the tab to that sad sack at the end of the bar. He’s used to it.

This same sad sack – otherwise known as the Texas taxpayer – is working hard to get very un-used to it via the commendable handiwork of the Texas Legislature.

Lawmakers voted last spring to deny local officials the power to raise tax revenues as much as 8 percent without specific permission from the voters.

Know what? Those days are over… Almost. 

Starting January 2020, cities and counties won’t be able to raise property tax collections higher than 3.5 percent without going to the voters and saying, pretty-please.

But for the remainder of 2019, the old system of grab-and-don’t-ask stays in place.

Legislators reportedly came under heavy pressure from local officials to give them a last round of double scotches, so to speak—meaning a chance to enact one more permission-free levy of 5 or 6 or even 8 percent. It’s made for messes of varying squalor.

Some local government bodies have kept their increases low or reduced them. Fort Worth and Dallas, for instance, both dropped their tax rate for the fourth year in a row.

However, keep your eye mainly on the revenues, not the rate. As property values rise, officials can theoretically raise the former without touching, or even lowering, the latter.

Bexar County increased revenues 2.4 percent – within the new guidelines – while barely touching the tax rate.

But several other cities and counties are pushing an immediate tax increase of up to 8 percent before the end of the year.

If a taxing entity currently wants more than an 8 percent increase, it has to go to the voters for approval. Keeping an immediate tax increase under that rate lets it snub the Legislature and the voters.

Take, for example, El Paso County’s elected leadership, with a budget that generates an extra 8 percent in revenues through a 9.2 percent tax rate, out of which windfall the county judge and commissioners get raises.

In Harris County, Democratic and Republican commissioners have squared off – 3 to 2, respectively – over a nearly 8 percent increase.

Then there’s Travis County, whose newly adopted budget – $1.2 billion – bumps up revenues by the full 8 percent.

Victoria and McKinney are also reportedly looking for an immediate bump: one final down-the-hatch before Happy Hour ends and customers begin soberly to contemplate what they can afford, as opposed to what they want.

These matters are admittedly complex, particularly in a state with no personal income tax to fund a New York lifestyle.  And the principle of subsidiarity is a good and wholesome one: that is, local people deciding what they want, locally.  There are, in any case, numerous ways to skin the budgetary cat, not all of them flinty and baleful. 

Every public official is supposed to understand the necessity of caring for taxpayer money in a way that:

  1. Does useful things without
  2. Awaking resentments and creating personal hardships

A budget that reflects just one or neither of these priorities is a budget that can and should be cut. A public official can’t disrespect the people who earn the money that pays the taxes – not and expect them to go on cheerfully contributing to the expenses of the big party.

A second reality too many local officials have failed to keep in mind is that economic growth funds spending growth; but to get the latter you have first to encourage the former. As Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff – a veteran San Antonio office-holder – sensibly observes: “If you don’t have a growing economy, it’s a very hard job to [hold down tax rates].” 

That would be putting it mildly.

No entrepreneur wants to move to some county or city where the great civic pastime is carving up all the golden-egg-laying geese in sight. Of which danger there now seems a little less than Texans had gotten used to.

Happy Hour’s over. It’s time to get real, real serious