This year, as we start a new legislative session, we are hearing a lot of bipartisan talk and feeling a new sense of working together. Headlines are hitting the newspapers about billions being put into public education, $5,000 raises for teachers, and that we are going to “fix” school finance once and for all. There are also promises of lowering all of our taxes, improving health care, taking care of retired teachers, and improving safety in our state. On the surface, most people are really excited about this new focus on getting things done.
I am going to remain optimistic that the November elections sent a clear message to our politicians that Texans are tired of the hateful rhetoric coming from our leaders without getting anything done. The last legislative session was held hostage by our Lieutenant Governor and in November, he nearly lost his post to a Democrat he outspent by millions. Several very vocal radicals were defeated in the Senate and House, and I think the message was clear that Texas supports, and will vote for, a shift back to common sense. Here are the things I am concerned about and I would urge you to consider.
First, it is impossible to give every department more money, raise salaries, shore up pension funds, increase the allotment for public education, and along with that, give us all a tax cut. I’m not a math major, but that is impossible. Without raising revenue, these headlines are all just going to go down as another session of broken promises. So, pay attention to the revenue side of these issues as the session moves forward. My prediction is that no one will get a tax cut, and at some point our legislators are going to have to take some tough votes on the above-mentioned promises they made. They cannot possibly do everything they have said they will do without making major changes to bring in additional revenue.
Everyone I know thinks teachers should make more money. However, a one-time infusion of $5,000 and forcing every school district to give this raise is disastrous. What happens three years from now when the state no longer provides that funding? I can tell you what happens: local school boards and administrators are forced to make cuts to continue funding these raises that the state demanded. Can you say unfunded mandate? This is why local control is so important. The state should increase the basic allotment for education and allow local elected officials some discretion in how their money is spent. A demand from the state is not the way to go.
I could go on and on about every one of these issues, but the last one I want to mention is the 2.5% cap on property taxes. Again, this is disastrous. The leadership in our state has decided that they know more than our locally elected officials and they know what is best for every unique community in our state. This cap will handcuff city and county officials, and many communities will be forced to cut public safety, roads, etc., in order to make local budgets work. I don’t think this is what our citizens want. On a side note, in the past, when citizens have come to me to complain about their taxes or their appraised value going up, I always ask them this question: “If I write you a check right now for the appraised value of your house, will you take it?” I can only think of one time when the person said yes. Ninety-nine percent of the time, our homes are appraised at less than what we would sell them for. So, I think all the talk about excessive tax appraisals is not consistent with what I have seen in the communities where I have lived and worked.
You will hear that Texas has one of the highest property tax rates in the country. This is correct. We are 6th or 7th in the country for highest property taxes. However, the rest of the story is that when you consider that we do not have a state income tax, Texans are some of the lowest taxed citizens in the country. The last list I saw had Texas at about 43rd of the lowest taxed states.
So, as you watch the session unfold, keep your eye on revenue, tax changes that would handcuff local elected officials, and the dreaded unfunded mandates. I have a feeling the kumbaya moment we are having now will have some real challenges in the months ahead. After the pomp and circumstance is finally over and our legislators actually get to work, the devil will be in the details...
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