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Please Support Constitutional Unfunded Mandate Protection

By Judge Souli Shanklin

 

Let’s talk for just a moment about that property tax bill you received a couple of months ago and probably paid not too long ago.

If you or your mortgage company is writing a check to the Edwards Central Appraisal District, that money must be going to the county, right?

Well, the answer is actually NO. That bill is not from the county. It helps to fund city, county, and school operations (as well as special districts like utility and emergency services districts).

I want to tell you the rest of the story, at least for our community.

The County’s portion is probably your best buy at less than 17% of your total property tax bill. Our cities usually account for about 19%, and the rest goes to our schools.

That’s a big ticket because the State legislature continues to fund less and less of the costs of public education. In fact, the latest state budget requires (let me say that again, R E Q U I R E S) a 13.7% increase in local school property taxes.

Also, state per-student funding in Texas in 2015 was 16% lower than in 2008 when you adjust for inflation. And we property taxpayers picked up the tab. Between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the state per-student funding in Texas dropped 1.5% after adjusting for inflation, and again, it was us property taxpayers who were left to cover the difference.

But school’s not the only financial responsibility the Texas Legislature has pushed down to homeowners and small business here in Edwards County.

The Texas Legislature may lack the authority to levy a property tax, but they definitely spend property tax revenue by mandating counties enact certain new policies or services. These mandates might be well-intended and even necessary, but they don’t come with funding, just a price tag. Politicians in Austin expect local property taxpayers to open their wallets for these, too.

We refer to those new costs as unfunded mandates, and statewide, it’s costing property taxpayers billions of dollars.

Right now, local officials like myself have no choice but to enact these unfunded mandates, and raise revenue through your property tax system to pay for them. We’re raising taxes on ourselves, our families, our neighbors… you! – and we’re not happy about having to do it.

Take indigent defense costs, for example. You know “if you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you.” In the last 15 years, those costs have increased 171% statewide, and the state has reimbursed us for about twelve cents on the dollar. Last year, here in Edwards County, we spent $12,290 on indigent defense in all of our courts, and the state reimbursed $7,092. That means you picked up that tab on your property taxes.

A huge portion of the County’s budget goes to the County Jail. The state sets the standards, staffing ratios, training, inmate classifications and segregation, meals and nutrition standards, and safety measures for the jail, and all intensely monitored. The cost of inmate services last year was $352,196, this year we’ve budgeted $398,631.

Counties routinely supplement State services offered here locally. For example, we also provide space, equipment, and/or personnel for:

  • Department of Public Safety troopers – office space, court expenses
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service – office space, office equipment, staff
  • Texas Parks & Wildlife Game Warden – office space, state receives 85% of fines – County keeps 15% of fines

 

So, the Texas Legislature has been shifting the burden of paying for schools, their pet projects, and a variety programs and services all to local property taxpayers, yet, what you’re probably hearing most right now is state politicians claiming that they’re going to “rein in skyrocketing property taxes.”

Well, most of the County budget is considered state-mandated. In other words, we don’t have a lot of say in what we have spend your tax dollars on.

So, what can taxpayers do to help reduce or slow the growth of your local property taxes?

The Legislature has the power to put an end to this cost shifting. In fact, the Texas House tried to end it last year. They called for a vote on a constitutional amendment to restrict the legislature from passing unfunded mandates on to cities and counties. The Senate, unfortunately, wouldn’t even consider it.

Tell your state leaders to support a constitutional amendment to stop unfunded state mandates. The governor recently came out in favor of legislation to end unfunded mandates, but a simple statute is something legislators will find ways around, so we must demand a constitutional amendment.

Mail a postcard to the governor and lieutenant governor.

Send them an email.

When you have an opportunity to visit with your legislators while they’re out campaigning, let them know that real property tax reform includes constitutional unfunded mandate protection. Tell them you want your say at the ballot box.


GENERAL POINTS ON UNFUNDED MANDATES

  • The Texas Legislature has relied on property taxpayers to pay for more and more over the years, but it’s not just the responsibility for funding schools that they’ve pushed down to local property owners.
  • The Legislature regularly demands that counties enact expensive new policies and programs, known as unfunded mandates, expecting local property taxpayers to pick up the tab.
  • Texas counties, and property taxpayers by extension, face billions of dollars-worth of unfunded mandates from both the state and federal government.
  • The costs to taxpayers of unfunded mandates keeps growing, consuming county budgets. This growth (particularly if a revenue cap were imposed) risks squeezing out discretionary items like parks, libraries, public safety & health initiatives, even law enforcement patrols.
  • Unfunded mandates may be unintentional when passed, and the policies might be necessary, but when funding isn’t sent with the mandates, property taxpayers take the hit. That’s not right.

 

SCHOOLS

  • This cannot be emphasized enough: Surging property taxes are directly linked to the state’s school finance problems.
  • It’s no secret that the Legislature has been shifting the burden of paying for schools to property taxpayers for a long time now. Years ago, the state covered 75% of school costs. By 2019, the state will cover just 31% and property taxpayers pick up the rest.
  • The state of Texas has abdicated its constitutional duty to fund public schools, pushing the responsibility down to property taxpayers and exploding property tax bills, fueling much of the property taxpayer angst in the state.
  • State per-student funding dropped 16% from 2008 to 2016 when you adjust for inflation.
  • Between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the state per-student funding in Texas dropped 1.5% after adjusting for inflation, and again, it was us property taxpayers who were left to pick up the tab.
  • The state’s dependence on property taxpayers is transparent. The current state budget relies on a nearly 14% increase in property appraisals across the state to adequately fund schools.
  • The numbers are more dire than state leaders describe. The state counts property tax revenue collected through recapture (Robin Hood) as state money – despite the fact that it would be unconstitutional to have a state property tax system in Texas.

 

NUMBERS ON UNFUNDED MANDATES

  • The cost to counties for court-appointed lawyers in criminal cases is up 136% since 2001.
  • The cost of court-appointed attorneys in CPS cases is up 28.1% from 2011 to 2016, costing almost $46 million statewide in 2016.
  • The cost of the victim assistance coordinators went up 28.4% from 2011 to 2016.
  • The cost of e-filing mandate went up a whopping 2139.3% between 2011 and 2016.
  • Some states partially or even fully fund county jail operations. Texas is not one of those states. The cost to property taxpayers in Texas for running county jails was more than $7.6 billion between 2011 and 2016.
  • The cost of emergency room visits for jail inmates is up 60.7% from 2011 to 2016, hitting nearly $43 million in 2016.
  • Between 2011 and 2016, the cost of prescription drugs for jail inmates went up 20.4%.
  • The cost of mental health evaluations for jail inmates is up 25.9% since 2011.
  • The cost of juvenile probation shot up 20.6% between 2011 and 2016, hitting $472.4 million in 2016.
  • The cost of indigent health care went up 25.6% reaching $77.4 million in 2016. The cost of indigent health care for county jail inmates is up 22.1% over that same period.

 

UNFUNDED MANDATES

  • Prohibiting state unfunded mandates would help protect property taxpayers and prevent financially disruptive circumstances that hurt taxpayers and strain county operations.
  • Taxpayer protections can be put in the Texas Constitution. The Texas Legislature has the power to provide safeguards and accountability to protect taxpayers by passing a resolution ordering an election to consider a constitutional amendment ending the practice of pushing costs down to property taxpayers.
  • We should let voters decide. If a proposed constitutional amendment resolution passes the Legislature, voters would have the opportunity to go to the ballot box and put pay-as-you-go government in the Texas Constitution.
  • A constitutional amendment would put property owners and small business first, providing relief for hardworking Texans.
  • A constitutional amendment would control both the costs and growth of local governments by adding more accountability to the choices the Legislature makes.
  • A constitutional amendment banning unfunded mandates is based on a model for conservative, accountable government that has worked in other states, like Missouri where it has been part of their constitution for almost 40 years.
  • A constitutional amendment empowers local communities to decide for themselves what is worthy of their time, talents and tax dollars, providing a structure by which property taxpayers can object to new unfunded mandates. There isn’t any bureaucratic interpretation required, and it can be enforced with little need for court action.

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