If past trips are any indication, business will mix with pleasure when the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce leads a delegation of business leaders and city officials to the State Capitol Wednesday. Let’s hope the delegation cuts through the pleasantries to make clear they mean business about local control.
More and more, the once-cherished concept of local control — as in policies set and ordinances passed by locally elected officials closest to the people they govern — is under attack in Austin. Some of the same state legislators bemoaning federal overreach are themselves guilty of intrusion into and micro-managing of local entities, including passing along unfunded mandates.
Last week, Shanna Igo, deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal League, informed the Waco City Council that of some 4,600 state bills filed this session, some 1,200 could impact cities, often adversely.
“In the many years I’ve been at the Texas Municipal League, there is more anti-city hostility than I have ever witnessed,” she told the council. “The words ‘local control’ used to be great and what [legislators] ran for office on. That was their campaign mantra. Now it’s a dirty word. Local control means nothing. It’s [all about] ‘liberty.’ They say cities take away your liberty because we regulate. They don’t like any type of regulation.”
Igo discussed various state bills, including those that would restrict annexation powers and diminish cities’ zoning rights. While some residents might think they dislike all regulations, many like them when they ensure “they’re not living next to a pig farm or a party house,” she said. Most vexing: a bill requiring local governments to get voter approval to hike property taxes more than 4 percent, down from the current 8 percent. Fueled by high property-tax bills, Senate Bill 2 obscures the fact property-tax burdens most heavily involve school taxes, not city and county taxes.
One reason property taxes are rising is because of our state’s broken school finance system. Legislators have quietly allowed their share of public school funding to slip, heaping more of the burden on property owners who, unwittingly, then blame school boards for steep property-tax bills.
In fact, for all their grandstanding, state lawmakers have plenty to gain in property values rising so that local taxpayers can assume even more of the burden of paying for public schools. Councilman John Kinnaird, who chairs the local (and oft-embattled) appraisal district board, noted that property owners quick to also blame appraisers for hiking property values (and thus tax bills) should recognize that the state comptroller bears at least some of the blame:
“One thing that’s been brought to light that we didn’t fully realize is that the comptroller pulls properties every other year, does a statistical sampling, then tells each county appraisal district, ‘Here’s the range in which your values can fall on the basis of each school district.’ And if the appraisal district evaluation for each school district doesn’t measure up, if it’s too low, then the comptroller reports that to the Texas Education Agency and funding is cut to the schools till the appraisal district gets the values in the school district high enough within that [state-determined] range.”
That, Kinnaird says, is why some property owners in Waco Independent School District might soon see a 10 percent hike in values. But his frustration doesn’t end there.
“I mean, our state ranks near dead last in terms of state support to cities,” Kinnaird said. “We’re required to generate our own funding, we’re accountable to our own citizens, we get no support financially from the state and yet they are working very diligently to take away what latitude we do have to fund our public safety and our infrastructure and the things our citizens demand and require and expect us to do.”
The chamber delegation will likely come face to face with part of this Austin mindset. Among those embracing the view that cities and counties are political subdivisions subservient to the state, at least judging from past statements: Sen. Brian Birdwell, whose district includes Waco. And by Wednesday the delegation will have more evidence by which to judge him, based on Tuesday’s public hearing on Senate Bill 2.
As Igo quite accurately noted, many city officials were ridiculed and bullied by state legislators during property-tax relief hearings last year. One possible outcome: Some locals may decide they’ve had enough and take on domineering lawmakers — by running against them in coming elections.