The best political news of the day is that Monday, October 23, is the first day of early voting on state and local propositions on the November 7 general election ballot. This means that the wretched slimefests of campaigns over whether we should let Erath County be annexed into the Ranger College District will soon, and mercifully, come to an end.
Advocates of annexation could have, and should have, prepared better organized and more detailed presentations of the putative benefits that would accrue if Ranger College were to receive more financing. They’ve argued that Ranger can develop more programs and serve more students with increased educational opportunities and lower tuition. Traditionally, the benefits to society of a better-educated citizenry creating more wealth through pursuing productive careers have been enough to justify taxpayer support, at all levels of government, for public and higher education, although this attitude has greatly weakened in recent decades. The failure to prepare and finance a better organized and more thorough campaign emphasizing these themes is annexation’s supporters’ second biggest mistake.
But their biggest mistake was to fail to see the public’s animosity towards the idea of higher property taxes in the first place—an animosity obvious to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of recent local political history. Some supporters have expressed amazement that given the property taxes the public already pays to support public k-12 education, it would object to a “slight” increase in the property tax. But as I found out the hard way, even a one-cent tax increase can be considered onerous by some. And tax increases, however small and affordable, can be seen as merely the first steps taken by an arrogant and greedy government determined to take more and more of the taxpayer’s hard-earned money in the future.
Compared to the pro-annexation campaign, the anti-annexation campaign has been an exemplar of a well-organized movement presenting a clear and consistent message: No New Taxes! Its leaders have successfully exploited the public’s waning support for taxpayer financing of higher education, as well as the pro-annexation advocates’ inability to either clearly explain the discrepancy between the 43-cent tax rate in the Ranger ISD and the projected 11-cent tax rate in the potential district, or guarantee that the tax rate won’t go up in the future.
Some of the anti-annexation movement leaders have commendably urged that the campaign be kept clean, with due regard for the feelings of the pro-annexation advocates. But others have relentlessly smeared annexation’s principle advocate, the Ranger College President. And both sides have stooped to tactics which would be laughably pathetic were they not so reflective of the bitterness into which politics has descended—threats of defamation suits, as well as threats to bring criminal charges against those who argue either that annexation will impose economic benefits on students (presumably through lower tuition), or that annexation will raise rents to finance higher property tax payments. Both arguments are valid, the public needs to hear them, and those who make them are exercising both their rights and responsibilities in making them. For either side to threaten the other with criminal prosecution for stating obvious facts betrays democracy.
At this stage three conclusions are obvious, to me at least:
First, the annexation attempt will be defeated overwhelmingly. The public opposition to property tax increases is simply too strong and well-organized to believe otherwise.
Second, the need to mend fences between the Ranger College District and other government entities will be necessary. Most of the members of the Stephenville City Council signed an advertisement opposing annexation. The public has every right to know where its elected officials stand. Yet the council’s expressed hostility to annexation may diminish the ability of Stephenville and Ranger College to cooperate in the future. Fortunately, the Mayor, with the approval of at least one of Stephenville’s anti-annexation leaders, has wisely chosen to remain publicly neutral on the issue. He will be in a good position to begin the healing process once the election is over.
And third, new ways and means of financing public 2- and 4-year schools in ways that recognize the concerns of the taxpayers and promote fairness to all concerned are badly needed. I’ll discuss what I consider to be better options to our current way of doing things next week—if this column doesn’t get me firebombed in the meantime.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.