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Analysis: State boosts local accountability while eroding local control

At about the same time this week, one set of Texas lawmakers was working on ways to limit the growth of property taxes that fund local governments while another was considering legislation that could cost local governments a lot of money.

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* Correction appended.

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On the same day this week that the state’s Senate Finance Committee voted to limit how quickly property taxes can grow without voter approval, a House committee was taking up “sanctuary cities” legislation that would force local governments to enforce federal immigration laws.

The second bill exemplifies local government opposition to the first bill: The state regularly mandates programs and services to be offered by independent school districts, counties, cities and other government entities even as the big shots in Austin are screaming — in harmony with voters, by the way — about rising property taxes.

Our assorted governments seemed to have missed a conversation parents regularly have with their children: Stuff costs money. Want to spend less money? Do less stuff. Want more stuff? Find more money.

This cost-shifting goes on all of the time, so much so that it happens almost without consciousness — without lawmakers actually trying to think of ways to divert both the costs of the things their voters want and the blame for the price of those things.

The state’s share of the costs of higher education has steadily dropped as tuition has risen; somehow, the universities that raised the tuition have taken the brunt of the blame for that.

The state’s share of public education spending has dropped from 45 percent to 38 percent over the last decade — a financial shift to property-tax-supported local districts that saved the state and cost the ISDs in Texas $18.6 billion over that period. Somehow, the school districts have taken the brunt of the blame for the property tax increases that go along with that.

County and city governments have steadily made similar arguments, most recently in a report by the Texas Association of Counties on the costs of state mandates in criminal justice and other programs.

The “sanctuary cities” legislation likely will carry some more mandates, requiring local jails to hold undocumented immigrants in custody longer than they would otherwise. Whatever else that might mean, it means somebody has to pay for extra jail days — and if the past is prelude, it probably won’t be the state of Texas.

The state doesn’t have a property tax — that’s unconstitutional — but it’s trying to deliver some kind of comfort to property owners whose local taxes have been growing rapidly. The idea is to require voter approval for any increases over a certain amount; the Senate currently has a five-percent limit in its legislation, while similar legislation in the House would put the obstacle at four percent. School districts already face automatic rollback elections, but the trigger rate is calculated differently; they’re not included in the proposals for lower limits.

It’s not clear that this will actually hurt local governments, despite their opposition. If the state limits them to property tax increases of less than a certain amount without voter approval, the locals would have to convince voters to go along with their spending plans. It’s not a ban, but a speed bump. And it’s not impossible to get Texans to pull out their wallets: Voters around the state have approved spending millions of tax dollars on high school football stadiums, for instance.

Granted, sewers and jails and new schools aren’t as sexy as stadiums.

The real question is what would be cut from local government budgets if and when their voters reject bigger tax increases. Would it be the programs the state ordered or those the locals demanded? Are county commissioners supposed to rank the Legislature’s projects and programs over those their local voters want? Could they pose their tax referenda to voters in a way that makes it clear which programs are closest to the cutting block?

From a political standpoint, state lawmakers have an advantage here. Their proposed budgets cut spending on public education, higher education and other programs. The state expects to collect less revenue from taxes and fees than before — thus, the cutting. (They arguably have all the money they need to keep programs going like they are, if they tap their savings and employ some budgetary magic that’s available to them.)

Some of the gaps in the state’s spending will trickle down to locals, sparking conversations about whether to cut their own budgets or increase taxes — possibly to a level that would require voter approval.

That’s where the state officials have an advantage: They won’t be the ones taking the blame for those local cuts, or those local tax hikes. They’re the ones protecting you, right?

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The federal judges who said the state's congressional maps are invalid last week are in position to take another step — to require Texas to get federal permission whenever it wants to change election and voting laws.
  • The Texas Legislature is going to be busy this week with issues that ordinarily belong to other governments, as it considers the wisdom of local ordinances on restrooms, ride-hailing, short-term rentals, sanctuary cities and plastic bags.
  • The leadership battles in the Texas Legislature are often attributed to personalities — or to traditional House-Senate rivalries. But there's another factor: The Republicans in power are from different factions of their party. 

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Counties has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the threshold for school property tax rollback elections.

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