Local governments try to get spending approved ahead of new restrictions

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Travis County commissioners are giving themselves a 27 percent raise and handing out big raises to all other elected county officials in advance of the Texas Legislature’s property tax reform bill that takes effect Jan. 1, 2020. 

Commissioners are also expected to approve raising property taxes by the maximum 7.99 percent currently allowed by state law. That law will be replaced in the new year by a requirement in Senate Bill 2 that requires local governments to put any tax increase above 3.5 percent to a general vote.

The commissioners set a hearing for July 30  to discuss the additional $647,388 in salary spending. They have scheduled a vote on the county’s full budget for Sept. 24.

As predicted by the Texas Municipal League at the start of the session, passage of SB 2 is encouraging local officials to tax at the current maximum allowed by law to generate sufficient reserves in case of a major project or emergency situation.

Mayors Steve Adler of Austin and Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio have said they are considering the same maximum tax increases for property taxpayers in their cities.

Other local governing bodies, many of which are working on budgets this summer, are likely to consider strategies for dealing with the new spending constraints. 

Mayors George Fuller of McKinney and Jeff Cheney of Frisco have said their cities may consider eliminating homestead exemptions to offset their ability to increase taxes up to 8 percent without asking voter approval.

Fuller also said that once the tax reform bill takes effect, the McKinney City Council might have to consider cutting police or fire jobs or spending on libraries and parks, something Houston did when, in 2014, its council approved a self-imposed cap on spending without a citywide vote. 

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said SB2 has made the moves inevitable. “I have never seen as much passion around bills like this,” he said. “It’s bad policy for the state of Texas.”

The early responses from Austin, Travis County and elsewhere have angered Republican leaders who made local property tax reform a priority in this past session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a recent editorial warned local officials not to try to circumvent the new law by getting rid of tax relief measures like homestead exemptions or creating new fees not subject to the law.

“Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and I have jointly announced that we will eliminate any loopholes designed to circumvent the property tax reforms in Senate Bill 2 in the next legislative session,” Patrick wrote.

In an editorial published on the same day, Ed Emmett, former state legislator and longtime Harris County commissioner, said local officials were left little choice by the legislature.

“At its core, SB 2 continues state leaders’ war against local governments,” Emmett wrote. “The bill fails to recognize that Texas counties differ widely, so an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approach is bad policy for a county such as Harris, where almost two million people live in the unincorporated part of the county and so rely on county government to provide roads, flood control, parks and other infrastructure — as well as law enforcement.”

The Texas Monitor attempted to contact Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who presides over the commissioners court, to explain why SB 2 prompted across-the-board raises for elected officials. Eckhardt did not respond.

Eckhardt told the Austin American-Statesman, however, that the legislature put Travis County in a position where it needed to speed up what had been gradual pay increases.

“They are high. I completely concede,” Eckhardt told the Statesman. “These elected officials’ salaries are considerably behind market and they have been for some time.”

Included in the proposal is an annual salary increase for commissioners from $119,508 to $151,817. The 27 percent boost is the biggest in the pay package, but none of the other increases is less than 6 percent, compared to the 2 to 3 percent raises granted in past fiscal years.

Gerald Daugherty, the only conservative on the commissioners court, was also the only commissioner who opposed the pay package. “While I am cognizant that elected officials probably deserve some sort of a raise, I think they ought to be much more in line with rank and file,” Daugherty told the Statesman. 

James Quintero, director of local government policy for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the raises “outrageous.” Quintero spent much of the past legislative session on social media promoting the property tax reform bill, stressing that it was not a local spending cap, but a mechanism for citizens to approve tax increases above 3.5 percent. 

“Travis County is home to high taxes and big debt,” Quintero told The Texas Monitor. “Austinites are already fleeing the urban core because of a raging affordability crisis. Instead of giving themselves a 27 percent pay raise, county commissioners should put that money toward righting its fiscal ship.”

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said local governments know how best to shape spending to fit the needs of their communities. The backlash over what he called the “Goldilocks” effect — “The feds are big and bad, the cities are small and bad, but somehow states get it just right” — is just beginning, he predicted.

Quintero said he hopes state legislators are paying attention. “Take note, Texas Legislature,” he said. “There’s more work to be done at the local level to rein in big government.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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Mark Lisheron has more than 30 years of experience in newspapers and was most recently the managing editor for Reason.com. He also served as deputy editor, national reporter and Austin bureau chief for Watchdog.org. He was the founding Austin bureau chief for the bureau's predecessor, Texas Watchdog, winning the First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in Texas.

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