Not all heroes wear capes—some simply skip a meeting or two. That’s how two Harris County commissioners blocked an onrushing property tax hike that would have cost taxpayers there an additional $245.2 million.
By breaking quorum, Commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle denied the Harris County Commissioners Court the supermajority it needed for a tax hike, and forced the Commissioners Court to adopt its “no-new-revenue” tax rate.
“We were only beginning to get back on our feet from the economic burdens imposed by COVID restrictions when historic inflation levels came along and knocked many of us flat again,” Cagle told the media. “Now is not the time for local government to take advantage of inflated property appraisals to pay for an expanded government footprint. Now is when we should be fighting alongside taxpayers to help them dig out from under the rubble.”
What this means for Harris County property owners is a little bit of a reprieve. The county has been raising taxes disproportionately for years. From 2016 to 2020, Harris County’s property taxes grew 38.5%. Yet when added together, Harris County’s population growth and inflation for those years only amounted to 10.2%—leaving a difference of 28.4% which means that Harris County commissioners were growing government, not merely keeping pace.
That’s a lot, but it’s not as much as the city of Houston is raking in by taxing those same properties. The city’s property tax levy increased from $1.3 billion to $1.9 billion from 2016 to 2020, representing a growth of 45.9%. But during those years, Houston actually lost residents. Inflation accounts for about 7.2% of that bigger bill, but the rest is bureaucratic bloat.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was furious at the move. She calls the maneuver “games” now, but she was all for breaking quorum last year, when Democrats in the Texas Legislature left the state to block election integrity reforms.
“The quorum break is a valid parliamentary maneuver in the TX Legislature,” she tweeted May 31, 2021. “It’s rare because it’s almost impossible to get so many people on the same page. Not wise to mess with the courageous Texas House leadership and membership who pulled that off.”
Breaking quorum failed Democrats in the House—indeed, it was a PR fiasco beginning with a case of cheap beer and chartered plane to D.C., and ending with passage of the full slate of election reforms. But the two quorum breaks differ not only in outcomes, but also in nature. When the Democrats left the Capitol last year, all policymaking was shut down. The Legislature couldn’t gavel in; the stunt cost the state two special legislative sessions.
In Harris County, the only thing that was stalled was Judge Hidalgo’s planned spending spree. And that’s a good thing. Governments have no money of their own; they collect hard-earned dollars from taxpayers for every expense (and every pet project).
Now, Judge Hidalgo seems eager that county residents share her pain. The first cuts she announced were to public safety.
“Because of the games they’ve been playing, already this morning, $100 million have been cut from law enforcement,” Judge Hidalgo said. “We’re cutting money to the tune of $16 million for the sheriff, $5 million for the DA…”
That’s a veiled threat, of course, and perhaps a way for Judge Hidalgo—who is in a tight re-election race right now—to spread the blame for the county’s spiraling murder rate. But it’s completely unnecessary, as Harris County First Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham said in an Oct. 26 meeting.
“$50 million for environmental beautification, $31 million for workforce development, $13 million for early child development, $8 million for new bike trails, and a million and a half for public Wi-Fi; there’s your $100 million,” said Mitcham. “You cut that, and you fund law enforcement.”
It’s not complicated.
Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey got it right, and now lawmakers should pay attention. The Legislature recently passed a stronger state spending growth limit. Now it is time to rein in excessive government spending growth at the local level.