Local bureaucrats and their Austin apologists have found the ‘local control’ religion, but only as a convenient foil against taxpayer protection. Fearful that their days of unrestricted access to taxpayers’ wallets might soon draw to an end, we suddenly find them flaunting a position of questionable ideological weight.
The governor’s task force on appraisal reform has now presented recommendations to the state. At the forefront is a call to give the taxpayers a stronger voice in determining how much more local government can take in property tax revenues each year. The task force recommends that if revenues are to exceed 5 percent, then a popular election must be called to receive voter approval.
Perhaps the oddest critique of those opposing the task force recommendations comes from those purporting to be conservatives. They say the recommendations represent the legislature usurping “local control.” They hold those two words out as if they will hold mystical sway. It is as though “local control” defines the be-all and end-all of the conservative philosophy.
Such is not the case.
Fiscal conservatism has at its core the protection of the taxpayer, and the rock-bottom belief that everything possible must be done to ensure taxes are kept as low as possible. If “local control” can achieve it, fine. But local control is a means, not an end. Practically speaking, for far too many Texans escalating property tax bills are pricing them out of house and home. Those are locally-levied taxes, and they must be brought under control.
The conservative response is not to say, “That’s jolly bad luck for them to have that brand of local control.”
The correct response is to bring greater empowerment and liberation to the taxpayer. If the taxpayer wants to grow the size of local government, then they can so choose. Simply waiting out the terms of elected officials, to cast opposition votes, is neither productive nor economically healthy.
It must be recognized that no one suggests local jurisdictions cannot grow revenues from property taxes at high – even burdensome – rates. The principle is simply that taxpayers deserve to be asked. They should decide whether or not to shoulder an increase that exceeds the amount necessary to normally account for reasonable growth.
There are certainly times when local jurisdictions may need to do just that. And in those situations, elected officials can make their reasoned case to voters.
Response? It rests somewhere between elitism and hyper-pessimism. One critique hinges on taxpayers not being informed enough to make such a decision – an elitist response if ever there was one. While elected officials are charged with determining the slices of the government pie, taxpayers should be the ones to decide each year if that pie is to grow faster than they can reasonably be expected to bear.
Looking at our neighbors to the northwest, Colorado has for more than a decade had a very strict limitation on government growth at the state and local level. In more than 90 percent of the cases, the voters in small jurisdictions allowed government to grow beyond the limits of the law. And just recently the voters decided to exceed their state limit for a period of years – not erase it, but simply follow the law and allow for government expansion.
Why? Because they had confidence in the efficiencies lawmakers had achieved, and recognized there was a need for extraordinary spending.
But most importantly, they did it to themselves. They cannot blame their governor or legislature, their mayors or county officials. They voted to grow their government. Good decision or not? I don’t know, but they did it to themselves.
Texans are at least as smart and trustworthy as Coloradans in stewarding their government.
The governor’s task force has brought forward sensible recommendations that will empower individual Texans. And empowering the individual is the ultimate local control.