A few weeks ago I attended a talk on property taxes. The speaker was saying that because we don’t have a state income tax our property taxes were among the highest in the nation, and that we needed to cut property taxes before they destroyed us.
I found myself in agreement with everything the speaker was saying, but I couldn’t help but notice what he was not saying as well. He made virtually no reference to spending cuts. And I believe that one can’t talk about taxes without discussing spending as well. The reason: Our local government budgets must balance, meaning our taxes must always be high enough to cover spending. If we want more spending, we must accept higher taxes, and if we want lower taxes, we must accept less spending.
Making this point when I was on the city council didn’t exactly add to my popularity. At meetings of citizens demanding tax cuts, I’d say, “Okay—what spending cuts should we make to balance our budget while still cutting taxes.” They’d always reply, “cutting spending is your job, not ours.” And they were in one sense right—only the city council could cut spending. But taking that attitude evaded the central point I was trying to make—taxes and spending are two sides of the same coin, and always had to be in balance with each other.
For better or worse, voters may get more opportunities to try to think through the relationship between taxes and spending, at least if a proposal by Governor Greg Abbott becomes law. In essence, he’s demanding that the state “establish a property tax revenue growth cap of 2.5 percent per year.” His plan would allow “a political subdivision’s tax levy to grow by up to 2.5 percent per year without voter approval.” But “any such increases above the cap must be approved by a super-majority vote (2/3rds) of the people and the elected officials of the city, county, or special district. Elected officials would vote to place the increase on the ballot, and then the voters would vote on the increase. Both votes would require a 2/3rds vote in favor.” Governor Abbott’s complete plan can be found at https://www.gregabbott.com/propertytaxes/.
A few years ago I would have agreed with this plan’s opponents. Most government officials, as well as most academicians, dislike the idea of having the public vote directly on public policy issues, claiming the public normally doesn’t know enough about the complexities of finance to cast intelligent votes on the subject. It’s better to leave such questions up to elected officials, so the argument goes, who presumably study the matter more and can, therefore, make better-informed decisions.
And while I’ve always had a higher opinion of the knowledge of the voters than most skeptics of such elections, I disliked the idea of making policy by direct popular vote for another reason: When officials vote on policies, their votes are public, and the voters can hold them accountable by voting them out of office if they dislike the way they voted. But who can be held accountable if the voters themselves, by secret ballot, enact policies that subsequently have bad consequences?
But now I like the idea. It’s implementation will make elected officials more careful and economy-minded as they draft their local governments’ budgets, knowing that if they propose the sort of spending increases that require tax increases to cover them, they must work harder to convince the voting public that their increases in both taxes and spending are justified. And the voters themselves must think through more thoroughly the consequences of their votes—approving a tax increase will require them to pay higher taxes yet perhaps get more and better services, while rejecting a tax increase may save more money in the short run, yet postpone improvements and extensions of services in the long run. Of course, whether the consequences of either course of action are good or bad will be up to each voter to define.
Nobody knows all the consequences and ramifications of a given public policy before that policy actually goes into effect. Governor Abbott’s proposal has not yet been adopted. But should it be adopted, and should it provoke more debate on taxes and spending, and a greater understanding of, and ownership of, these basic issues, then Governor Abbott will deserve credit for making our democracy more lively, more active, and more effective.
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.