North Texas voters show themselves willing to approve new taxes

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North Texas

Voters in North Texas cities this month approved bond proposals to fund everything from street improvements to new city halls and parks to a grand total of $4.7 billion. Those results show signs of a “sophisticated” electorate, according to a local elections analyst.

But to lawmakers in Austin, grappling with measures to rein in property taxes, last weekend’s results “are very tough to see.”

“People are not aware much of the time that they are raising taxes when they approve a bond proposal,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills. He said bond measures are pitched in ways that mislead voters to believe they will not see a tax increase, “which just can’t be done.”

“We don’t do a good job of totally explaining that these votes create tax increases,” said Hancock, one of the authors of a statehouse measure passed this month to broaden the requirement for local governments to get voter approval for tax hikes. “I spent 13 years on a school board and I had friends who would vote for bond measures and then complain about higher taxes.”

Hancock said pending legislation would require more transparency in bond proposals.

“We’ve allowed disingenuous words to be used, and it just needs to be made even more clear that you are voting on a tax increase,” he said.

Hancock noted that one bill, SB 323, would create a three-member panel of judges to vet ballot language to make sure the potential impact of a bond proposal is clear to voters.

Of the 88 bond proposals on this spring’s ballot statewide, 33 came from school districts, colleges and cities in Dallas, Collin, Tarrant and Denton counties. Of those, 31 were approved.

The area is a hub of growth in the state, leading the U.S. in new residential growth in 2018. Clogged roads, bursting schools and an estimated 1,000 new residents a day in some areas have created needs, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

“These are now more sophisticated voters who see that they need to fund roads and schools,” Jillson said. “There’s more maturity on the part of the voting public, as they know that tax revenues to the state are very low and the state struggles to provide a share of funding for school districts [and] overall local development. “

The proposals that passed did so with a minimum of local debate and little if any advertising.

Christopher Reddick, a public administrator professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, said bonds are usually rejected only if a specific group forms to oppose something controversial. “Without that resistance, these things get passed,” he said.

School districts and cities are aware of naysayers and even have strategists who advise them on how to overcome opposition.

The management at PBK, a Houston-based architectural and engineering design company that frequently works on local government projects encourages municipalities to be aware that “anti-bond activists (naysayers) will aggressively share their version of the facts … . The media thrives (and profits) on publishing anything controversial, so either directly or indirectly, they will inevitably give the naysayers’ message airtime.”

PBK marketing director Ryan Gregory wrote in 2017 that most opposition comes from “right-wing community organizations/associations.”

He suggests that to defeat opponents, “a top priority in effectively communicating a bond issue should be to inform and educate the people who will benefit the most from its results (i.e. parents and staff).”

Gregory did not respond to an email seeking comment.

PBK has worked with several districts on bond proposals, serving as a communications agency to help promote bonds as well as funding PACs supporting bonds. PBK also designed the flawed, $60 million Allen football stadium. The stadium, funded through a bond measure, opened in 2012 and had to be shut down for repairs for over a year shortly after opening.

The Allen school district is one of two in North Texas where bond elections failed. Voters refused a $422.8 million proposal for new buildings.

“I am so sorry but enough is ENOUGH. I voted against.” That was one of several comments posted on the district’s Facebook page. The proposal failed by 480 votes.

A $24 million library in Farmers Branch was also turned back, by a margin 67 to 33 percent.

The overwhelming support for bond proposals runs counter to the contention of state lawmakers like Hancock who insist voters want tax relief.

Senate Bill 2, approved by both statehouse chambers and headed for conference committee, caps tax increases for school districts at 2.5% and city/county governments at 3.5%, unless approved by voters. The current limit is 8%.

School districts and cities insist that despite the vast success of bond measures, the new tax hike caps will financially handicap them.

“The question of course for schools is — is the state going to make the school districts whole?” Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods  told the San Antonio NBC television station as the tax capping measure passed.  “There will be healthy skepticism among school folks about that.”

Cities insist that the passage of SB2 will close libraries and result in potholed roads.

“It is actually a service reduction,” Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, told the Texas Tribune.

Sandlin did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Voter turnout in both Dallas and Tarrant county bond elections was just below 10 percent percent, and many of the proposals passed with 60 percent or more of the vote. In some cases, approval reached the 80 percent range.

According to the conservative D.C.-based Tax Foundation, Texas ranks fifth in the nation in terms of reliance on property taxes for its overall tax revenue, which is the money that will pay for the newly approved outlays.

Tax Foundation representatives declined an interview request.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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