Commentary: Gerrymandering and the great Texas property tax swindle

When the Texas Legislature meets to redraw our congressional districts after the 2020 Census, they’ll have more computing horsepower at their fingertips than Neil Armstrong had when he landed on the moon. Big data, the likes of which Eldridge Gerry and the good people of Massachusetts could never have imagined in the 1800s, will be used by the Republican-controlled Legislature to draw political boundaries that boost Republican chances in all future elections.

And Texans will continue to overpay property taxes as a result.

Gerry, whose ancient congressional district looked like a salamander, gave us the comical term “gerrymander.” It was funny then. The courts OK’d it with a chuckle. Americans tolerated it with a shrug.

Technology, however, has turned comedy into tragedy.

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Congressional districts today are drawn with unbelievable precision. Almost all districts are either purely Republican or purely Democrat. The party-in-charge in each state draws them that way to stay in power. Politicians who owe their election to gerrymandering have little to fear, as long as they toe the party line.

In a gerrymandered world, independence of thought and action are gone. Compromise and responsiveness to constituents does not happen. Republican lawmakers in Texas don’t believe they have to fear a Democrat. They act like the only thing they have to fear is a primary, which the party can pull off with a wink.

Just ask House Speaker Joe Straus, or Representative Sarah Davis. They’ll tell you what happens if you are a GOP officeholder and you exercise independent judgment.

And that brings me to gerrymandering and The Great Texas Property Tax Swindle.

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GOP officials know your property taxes will increase; it says so in black and white in the state budget. The increase in appraised values for the next two years is expected to be over 13 percent statewide — and the state budget is built around that expectation. While Austin homeowners will be forced to put more money into public education, the state gets away with putting in less. Property tax increases around the state simply don’t produce dollar-for-dollar increases in public education spending.

The Great Texas Property Tax Swindle, which menaces every homeowner in the state, is met with utter silence by Republican lawmakers. Gerrymandering keeps them safe. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the party strong man, can run around blaming schools for high property taxes, but that’s preposterous. Yet, Republican lawmakers just sit on their hands saying — and doing — nothing.

The good news is that killing gerrymandering, and ending The Great Texas Property Tax Swindle — and all the other really rotten Dan Patrick ideas like vouchers, bathrooms, and teacher-benefit cuts — will be simple. Texas needs only to follow the lead of six other states and create a redistricting commission.

Let a diverse group of independent commissioners, not partisan warriors, draw our districts fairly after the 2020 Census. Then, we’ll see politicians start working hard to respond to constituents rather than working hard to stoke the ambition of the party war lord.

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The most difficult part will be maneuvering around current officeholders who naturally covet the job security that gerrymandering brings them. But it won’t be impossible: If all candidates for office in 2018, Democrat and Republican alike, make the election a referendum on gerrymandering – if we win because we promise to amend the Texas Constitution and create a redistricting commission – even the most partisan legislator will do the right thing.

That’s because he or she will be confronted with the hard reality that a vote against the redistricting commission would be a vote against the will of the people of Texas — and a vote against democracy itself.

Collier, a Democrat, is challenging Dan Patrick for lieutenant governor.

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