Commentary: Why Texas should worry about heavy-handed government

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Lower state taxes have never been a free lunch.

I remember watching the 2006-07 legislative session as a school board member — granted, I was much more naive then — but I believed our legislators were supporting public education and wanting to do what was best for all taxpayers.

It made a flawed attempt at property tax cuts — and anyone involved in the fight then knew it. By compressing a school district’s maintenance and operations rate and forcing school boards to hold elections for tax increases, the Legislature could indeed boast of a $7 billion savings over two years.

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The Legislature intended to supplant lost school revenues with funds generated through state business franchise taxes, also known as the “hold harmless tax.” However, there were predictable problems: The price of oil dropped as sales taxes declined. Small business’ dislike for the franchise tax led current lawmakers to cut this income.

Local property values continued to rise as billions of recaptured school tax dollars began to be redistributed into the state’s general fund — and the money was not used to pay for public schools, as originally intended.

Children in Texas kept coming — 70,000 or more new students per year — and the Texas Constitution still requires the state to provide a public education. Someone had to pick up the tab then and now, because communities wanted strong and locally controlled public schools. The Legislature did not count on that — and many communities passed tax ratification elections to keep their schools operating according to local standards and expectations.

The same philosophy holds true today as it did in 2007: Until you fix public school finance, you cannot have meaningful property tax relief. The state must carry its share of the cost.

The year 2007 is when school districts lost local control — and now the same limitations and restrictions are being proposed for city and local governments.

When a small group of mostly men without children enrolled in public schools begin to think they know how best to educate the masses, we have a problem. When this same small group gathers in Austin and seeks to dictate what is best for your cities and local governments, we have a problem.

Why does a Texas representative or senator know more about local needs than a locally elected mayor or city council member? The answer is they don’t.

When the state decreases its share of taxes, somebody else must pick up the tab or be ready for decreased services from police, firefighters, street maintenance, parks and anything else that makes your communities a place where people want to live. Quality of life is sacrificed for the opportunity to boast about decreasing taxes. Rural communities will suffer first.

If a community cannot offer a good education and opportunity for work, the youth will not come back, marry and raise their children. The community will eventually cease to exist.

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The governor has made the call for a special session — and there is no shortage of bills being filed dealing with city and counties ability to set their taxes. We need to think long and hard before we take away local control from our locally elected officials. The evidence of a heavy-handed state government has not produced the results it intended; instead, it has produced underfunded schools, more unfunded mandates and additional bureaucracy — and now threats to our local communities.

The Legislature’s lesson should have been learned with public education. At the end of the day, our taxes did not decrease due to property value increases. Local school districts were no longer the recipients of all our taxes, which led to larger classes and fewer teachers. Cities will suffer a similar fate. Talk to your legislators before the special session. Take back your schools, cities and local governments.

Waggoner is president of the Leander school board.

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