Let local officials run local government

Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

I ran for Tarrant County Judge in 2006 on a platform of traditional conservative principles: local control, public safety and more personal freedom.

For the past 10 years, I have watched the state government in Austin undermine these conservative values. State leaders rail about local property taxes and blame local elected officials while they reduce the state’s share of public education funding and force cities, counties and school districts to pay for unfunded mandates. In an effort to center more control in the capital, state lawmakers are restricting local elected officials’ ability to make local quality of life decisions.

When it comes to property taxes, public education receives the largest amount. Since 2008, according to the Legislative Budget Board, the state has continually reduced its percentage share of funding public education. Those reductions contribute directly to increases in the tax burden on Texas property owners. Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a budget that balanced only by assuming local school taxes will go up 7.04 percent this tax year and another 6.77 percent next year.

At the same time, local tax dollars have to pay for unfunded state mandates. In 2001, the Legislature passed a law requiring counties to provide lawyers for people charged with crimes who couldn’t afford to pay for their own defense. The state said it would reimburse the costs, which counties paid out of reserves. At year’s end, instead of reimbursing counties dollar for dollar, the state paid pennies on the dollar. The next year, counties across Texas had to increase local property taxes to pay for the program. In 2016, property owners statewide paid almost $200 million for these defense lawyers.

As conservatives, we don’t like it when Washington passes unfunded mandates on the states. As conservatives, we shouldn’t like it when Austin does the same to local government.

Tarrant County remains fiscally conservative. Our tax rate has been below the effective tax rate for five of the last 10 years. The effective tax rate is essentially the rate necessary to generate the same amount of revenue as the previous year excluding new construction. This year we plan to collect approximately 4.3 percent more in property taxes. We put those resources to use for our residents. Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson has created an Intimate Partner Violence unit to reduce spousal abuse and a unit focused on crimes against the elderly and children. Sheriff Bill Waybourn continues a courtesy patrol to help stranded drivers. Many of our justices of the peace work with schools to reduce truancy. We are not required to do these things, but choose to do them to improve the quality of life for our residents.

Yes, these local decisions can increase the tax burden on property owners. We accept responsibility for that. But don’t blame us for the Texas Legislature’s decisions that increase the tax burden on local property owners by billions in the case of public education and hundreds of millions in unfunded mandates to cities and counties.

To reduce the tax burden on property owners, encourage your state elected officials to:

  • Recommit state funding of public education to historic levels, and
  • Reimburse local governments for existing unfunded mandates and prohibit passing new ones.

Recently, a judge from another county asked what specific information I use to determine who gets my election support. For me, if a candidate takes money from Empower Texans, Midland oilman Tim Dunn or the billionaire energy entrepreneurs the Wilks brothers, I will vote for someone else or not at all. These individuals, who are attempting to influence elections across the state, have contributed more than $2.5 million to Empower Texans. That’s about 78 percent of the total contributions Empower Texans received during the 2018 elections cycle. Additionally, Dunn and the Wilks brothers have contributed an additional $1.35 million to other PACs and no telling how much to individual candidates’ campaigns.

Empower Texans, Dunn and the Wilks brothers are trying to centralize decision making at the state level while severely restricting local elected officials from making decisions that impact the quality of life for their constituent. Outsiders’ money in local elections should always raise eyebrows.

Local elected officials welcome the opportunity to talk with state leaders to find common ground on these issues and the principle of local control. That’s a principle I’ve never stopped believing in, nor will I stop fighting for it.

Glen Whitley

Tarrant County Judge