In Austin, one team remains undefeated. Not the Longhorns—rather, city officials’ propensity to spend Other People’s Money as though it were a professional sport. And while it might make progressives on City Council temporarily feel good, their excesses come with a big price tag. In fact, the average Austin homeowner paid $9,219 in property taxes this year, with more than 20% of that total due directly because of city taxes.
Austin’s incredibly high tax burden is one reason why Central Texans should get involved in the budget process, which is underway now and will conclude on August 16-18. That means residents have just under 2 weeks left to let their voices be heard. And although we do not yet know the final budget, it would appear from the draft that their spending habits were inspired by the fiscal values of Marie Antoinette.
Mayor Watson claimed recently: “I, and others, have been working very much to make sure that local government works the way it ought to work.” Apparently, meeting such a demand costs on the order of $5.5 billion. Such a bloated budget is greater than what many countries spend in an entire year.
The assertion that the way to make Austin’s city government work is more money is quite frankly laughable. This year, the mayor asked for an additional half a billion dollars and may very well get it. It just shows politicians can’t always do more with less, but they can do less with more.
In particular, they plan to send your tax dollars to raise the minimum wage of city employees to $22 an hour, roughly three times the minimum wage. For context, that’s a larger income than the median income in the United States, assuming full-time employment. To put it differently, over half of wage earners make less than the City of Austin employees would on their first day on the job.
What are some of the other ways the city wants to “make local government work?”
Well, remember when the winter storm this past winter left thousands without power? Austin officials could have privatized Austin Energy, like many other major Texas cities. Instead, they intend to spend another $1.8 billion — quite literally throwing money at their problems.
Now, Karl Marx was wrong; religion is not the opiate of the masses—but spending may be the opiate of progressive city governments. Each year they come back to the taxpayer jonesing for another hit. It’s time to have a tough talk with city governments and stage an intervention called fiscal responsibility.
In true addict fashion, they will at first deny, deny, deny—then switch tactics. Well, I have it under control. Sure, they do. That must be why they have to spend $5.5 billion. Finally, the addict goes in for the kill. If you love me, you’d understand I need it; without it, I would wither away.
Folks, this is not how local governments should be acting. And it’s a clear sign that things need to change.
What’s the solution? Adoption a responsible local budget (RLB). Researchers at the Texas Public Policy Foundation published a report last year on what that might entail. In essence, a RLB budget is capped at inflation plus population growth. If we applied that standard to Austin, over the past decade municipal spending would have grown in a more responsible way and the tax burden could have been dramatically less. How many families would have been helped by that? Countless.
It’s time to get Austin’s spending under control so that we can get our mammoth property taxes under control. And then, maybe, we can get our housing affordability problem under control.
It’ll take hard work and fiscal discipline, but the final product (i.e. healthy family budgets) is worth it. Anything short of that is just cheap talk.
Until then, Austin’s big spending remains undefeated.