So after Gov. Greg Abbott’s tweet last weekend putting down local officials over property taxes and school finance, the question arises: Is Gov. Abbott stupid or does he just think McLennan County Judge Scott Felton is stupid?
Likely neither. I suspect the governor is counting, rather, on the stupidity of everyday Texans still fuming over property-tax bills who haven’t taken the trouble or time to educate themselves on the tangle of complexities in school finance and property taxes. Attentive Trib readers know (or should know) better, but others will go off half-cocked in assigning blame.
For those who don’t follow gubernatorial tweets, Abbott posted on his personal Twitter feed a story by Trib colleague Phillip Ericksen concerning Waco officials studying the hurtful consequences of the governor’s proposal limiting property-tax revenue increases to 2.5 percent from one year to the next for Texas cities, counties, schools, hospital districts and community colleges. He’s pressing this revenue cap in the name of property-tax relief.
Problem: Officials with the city, county and Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce as well as cities and counties across Texas insist one major reason our property-tax bills are so high is that state officials over several years have quietly reduced funding their fair share of public schools. This by necessity has increased the burden on local property taxpayers. If you examine your property-tax bill, you’ll find public schools likely consume most of your tax dollars. Catch: The state should be shouldering more of the proportion than it does. It used to do so. Yet too many of us explode and blame city, county and school officials as well as the appraisal district.
Normally jovial, easygoing County Judge Scott Felton was one of those locally elected officials explaining to Ericksen for his March 10 story how the state’s failure to adequately fund public education contributes to higher tax bills. Unless the governor is stupid, Abbott very disingenuously fired back that our local officials were actually bent on higher taxes. His March 10 tweet: “Waco officials want to tax their citizens more & make up excuses why. McLennan Co. Judge Scott Felton said revenue caps on local governments is unfair because the state Legislature is not adequately funding education. But, counties don’t fund education.”
Our Republican county judge — yes, from the same political party as the governor — acknowledges he’s been too busy with county business to formally respond to the governor (who apparently isn’t so busy). But Felton tells me that he recognizes the cards being played by the governor and his allies: “They’re trying to make theirselves heroes by putting restraints on us in our ability to provide fire safety, law enforcement, run our jails and take care of all the numerous and growing unfunded mandates [passed along by the state for local taxpayers to fund]. To say we’re the problem is ridiculous. They just need to own up to it.”
Don’t bet on it. In a separate March 10 tweet, Abbott singled out the tweet of someone who uses the handle “Q-Trip,” describes his policies as MAGA and “Don’t California My Texas” and tweeted a refrain the governor says he hears “more and more.” To quote Q-Trip, complete with grammatical garlands intact: “Waco was once a decent city to live. Property, & school taxes here are out of control! Liberals have taken over, & destroyed this town, & it’s surrounding areas. Waco has fallen to the left!” To which the governor added in warm support: “Some local officials insist on taking your money. Local officials must hear your anger. It’s time for tax reform in Texas.”
The governor and Q-Trip managed to stir up other tweets in ways no self-respecting pro-growth governor ever should. Someone lambasted HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines for regularly portraying Waco as a place of engaging neighborhoods and genial townfolks and tolerant attitudes: “Blame the Gaines’!!! They put that town on the map (tv wise). Now all the libs want to live there!!” (The Gaineses’ spring-break marketplace drew thousands of visitors to town this past week.) And then came this tweet to Gov. Abbott on his revenue-cap proposal from a self-described Christian and digital content marketing manager: “Put a lid on the amount of Californians moving here too, please.” Another of like mind even questioned the governor’s pride in getting people and businesses to move to Texas: “I don’t think you see the true problem. We keep bringing in companies from liberal states that then bring in liberal employees. Your [sic] turning us into a blue state.” Yet another jumped in: “Haha Waco was a s--thole until chip & Joanna made it cool.” To which another responded with skepticism: “Why would any decent liberal want to live in Waco? It was created for people in Dallas and Austin as a stop to urinate.” And at some point, someone named “Major Kong” — after the Slim Pickens character in “Dr. Strangelove” who rides a hydrogen bomb down to detonation over a Soviet ICBM site — blasted out this tweet: “Yeah dude ‘Waco that liberal bastion’ said no one ever.”
Other viewpoints in the Abbott Twitterverse: “Oh please. I live in Waco and while property taxes are high, it is due in large part to the Gaines effect, not because the city moved left. Waco is an extremely conservative city.” And there was this grim suggestion, which unfortunately for us all is probably closer to taxation integrity and genuine conservatism than anything else masquerading as such on the governor’s busy Twitter feed: “How about getting rid of property taxes and switching to a state income tax so that tax responsibility moves up and down with household income?” Other tweets closed in on the truth: “The school portion is the reason taxes are higher. That amount increases or decreases in relation to the state contribution required by Article 7 [in the Texas Constitution]. Keep stirring up the GOP base by blaming local government for all the tax problems that the State is the main culprit for.” And another: “Here’s the thing: the Texas Lege sends unfunded mandates down to the county and cities. Don’t be fooled by the pearl-clutching when these entities have to raise taxes to pay for state level demands. That was the plan all along.”
Judge Felton pretty much concurs with these last two tweets. Efforts by the governor and his allies revolve around pinning blame on cities and counties, something witnessed during last month’s circus of a Senate Property Tax Committee hearing on the governor’s tax plan. During the hearing, the committee chairman, wearing a red, white and blue 2.5 button, needled and provoked county and city officials testifying against the bill.
“I think our county amounts to only like 16 percent of [the typical property-tax bill],” Felton told me. “The biggest issue that needs to be resolved, the question that needs to be answered: Is the state going to continue underfunding education? Their percentage of coverage has dropped year after year. Now, they say they’re going to fix it, and it sounds like they’re working on a lot of options to close that gap to a certain extent. But to turn around and then say, ‘We need to put a cap on local entities because we can’t trust them to hold the line on spending money,’ when the state is causing the biggest tax burden on the local taxpayer by not funding public education — it’s not the county or the city.
“He ought to know the answer,” the judge said of the governor, “and he should know what point we were making here.”
All this bolsters suspicions Abbott’s game is politics, not policy. As Shanna Igo, deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal League, told the Waco City Council: “Last session, the governor called in a group of five mayors that were all Republican-leaning who had helped him in his campaign, like Frisco, Sugar Land, McKinney. And when they got out of the meeting, they were furious. I asked them what was wrong. They said the governor said as long as we have Democrats in some of the major cities, he’s going to continue to slap cities around. And they said, ‘But you’re hurting us, you’re hurting the mid-sized cities that are mostly Republican.’ And he said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re collateral damage.’”
During the Waco City Council’s March 5 work session, members discussed an analysis of the governor’s plan showing that, had his 2.5 percent cap on annual revenue growth been in place over the past five years, nearly $12 million in city revenue might have gone poof. However, because of this extra tax revenue, Councilman John Kinnaird argued, “we have new fire stations, we have new asphalt on miles and miles of road, our police officers have new vehicles and body-worn cameras, we have new code enforcement officers, we have many, many things our citizens demand of us.” Councilman Jim Holmes, a seasoned investment banking executive, civic leader and adventurer who represents conservative West Waco, marveled at the 2.5 percent cap and those pressing it: “One of the big things we’re trying to do on the council and in the city right now is improve city services and improve the infrastructure of the city. This is kind of a catch-up period for us. And for us to have this artificial suppression on the budget — and, again, I think we’re very responsible, you’ve got a lot of businessmen up here who know how to work budgets and adhere to budgets and set reasonable budgets — for us to have this mandate from Austin that we have to hold our growth in to me seems overreaching.”
Judge Felton’s prescription to Republican state Rep. Kyle Kacal, who represents part of McLennan County, is simple: “My proposal is you fix school finance, you get your arms around unfunded mandates and try to figure out a formula so not all these unfunded mandates hit cities and counties. And then the next Legislature, after you’ve proved up that you’ve fixed school finance and proved up that you really care about how many unfunded mandates you send down, then we’ll talk about caps.” The judge is betting property-tax relief will come once the state restores its fair share of public school funding and assumes the cost of programs now mandated by the state but left to county taxpayers to fund, such as indigent defense.
Councilman Kinnaird is a bit feistier: “The governor’s original proposal — if unfunded mandates remain, if it’s not indexed for inflation, if there’s no provision for when values go down and when an economic recession hits — this will be absolutely injurious to our ability to provide the vital and essential public services of public safety, infrastructure, code enforcement and the parks and libraries and other amenities that benefit our citizens and improve quality of life in our community. I would just suggest if the Legislature is adamant about doing something like this, I would just hope they might impose the same restrictions on themselves. We’ll see how well they do their own jobs with the restrictions they want to put on us.”
Meanwhile, Q-Trip, quite obviously inspired by the governor’s singling him out for social-media eminence in lamenting Waco’s decline, continued ruminating in tweets about better days gone by, here highlighted in all their grammatical elegance: “I dont think people understand, what im saying. Let me make this, as clear as I can. My hometown growing up, had a population of 850 people, & now it’s 15,0000!!!! THE QUALITY OF LIFE, IS NO LONGER HERE ! They’re exchanging farmland, for apartments, & buildings! We didn’t have stop lights, or mcdonalds. Just a couple of gas stations. Community was run by farmers. Someone sold these liberals , that it would be a nice place to live, so they moved in, bringing their idiocy’s with them ! Turned the best hunting land , in to 500k homes.”
Thanks, Gov. Abbott, for putting Waco and the surrounding area in a better light and elevating public discourse on property-tax reform and school finance! Where were you when the Branch Davidian compound burned down and we really needed you?