When property tax reform—embodied in Senate Bill 2 and its companion, House Bill 2—comes before the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, local governments and their lobbyists will be out in force to testify against it.
Many expect a repeat performance of what transpired in a packed Senate committee hearing earlier this month, with city and county officials as well as their taxpayer-funded associates on one side arguing to keep the status quo and frustrated taxpayers on the other side asking for change. The former will likely try to bludgeon the latter camp with an argument about endangering public safety; but if taxing entities (cities, counties, schools and special districts) wish to raise your taxes by 2.5 percent or more, then they can. They’ll simply need to get voter approval first.
That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Not to opponents of SB 2.
As the Texas Tribune reported, “Dallas Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Reich said the 2.5 percent automatic election threshold could prevent her city from hiring back first responders it lost during a pension crisis two years ago.”
The Houston Chronicle also cited Dallas Chief Financial Officer M. Elizabeth Reich: “She said if the 2.5 percent cap had been in place for the last 10 years, it would have meant $32 million less in annual revenue for the city, enough to pay 358 police officers.” Not that the city has any intention of actually hiring those extra police officers.
Mind you, there’s no tax cut at all in SB 2; it merely limits how much your taxes can go up without your approval. But opponents say that could undermine the support and safety of first responders.
In arguing this issue two years ago, in a set of talking points that is still on its website, the Texas Municipal League was clear: “A vote for S.B. 2 is a vote against law enforcement.”
The truth, of course, is that SB 2 not only doesn’t cut funding, but it doesn’t target any portion of the budget specifically.
If the city of Austin, for example, wants to put a police spokesperson in front of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday to make this case, it should have to defend the frivolous spending that any cursory glance at its budget reveals.
For example, there are three open positions with the city’s Department of Economic Development for Art in Public Places coordinators. They will earn between $25 and $50 per hour.
These new employees will be responsible for “recommend[ing], develop[ing], and assist[ing] with the facilitation of the procurement processes of public art,” as well as acting as a “liaison between artists, architects, contractors, [and] developers.”
Austin officials can bemoan public safety budgets all they want, but there seems to be no end of money when it comes to public artists, public toilets and public assistance of $5,000 per gig for touring bands.
The point here isn’t to pick on Austin (though the city council works hard to provide good examples of frivolous spending). There’s fat that can be cut in every budget before public safety resources are threatened. There’s Arlington’s $10 million eSports Stadium (for video games), Grapevine’s $1.5 million dog park and El Paso’s $39.5 million children’s museum.
Police and fire departments are core functions of city government, and spending on these items must come first. They should be funded first, prioritized in appropriations, and not shorted to fund wasteful spending with the limited funds available.
If public safety is impacted by SB 2, it will only be because someone in the governing entity makes a conscious decision to cut funding there, rather than in the myriad of other areas it could cut first.
What’s more, Texans are very supportive of our first responders. Do city officials really believe they can’t count on their voters to approve new police cars, Kevlar vests or body cams?
Or is their hesitation really that they don’t want to defend public artists and video game stadiums?
Using the police as pawns in a debate on funding is disingenuous. It demonstrates that some local governments will choose politics over their police, when it should be the other way around.
Keep that in mind when those men and women in blue testify in front of that House committee on Wednesday.