Many want tax cuts. But frequently taxes can’t be cut unless spending is cut as well, and
spending cuts present their own challenges.
I recently wrapped up my seventh summer chairing the Appraisal Review Board, a panel created
to hear protests from property owners asserting that the County Appraisal District had increased their
property valuations too much. Every protest was worth listening too, since every property owner has
the right to protest. And when the property owner was able to make his case, the ARB did, in fact, cut
his property valuation. But at the heart of all protests, whatever their respective merits, was the belief
that the CAD, aided and abetted by the ARB, was increasing their taxes.
My fellow Board members and I frequently had to explain that neither the CAD nor the ARB has
the authority to raise or lower taxes. The CAD simply estimates the market value of real property and
business personal property and supplies those estimates to the governmental decision makers who do
have taxing authority—the Commissioners Court, the city councils, the ISD boards of trustees, and the
directors of the Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District. How the governing boards with
authority over taxes and spending use that information to raise, lower, or maintain tax rates is not a
matter over which the CAD and ARB have authority.
We also reminded them that tax rates can’t be set in a vacuum. Spending must also be
considered. And therein lies a problem.
As a general rule, the public frequently likes lower taxes but more spending. The Congress and
the President can easily accommodate the public wishes in this area. Our Constitution imposes no
requirement that the federal government balance its budget (neither “balanced” nor “budget” is in the
Constitution). To the contrary, it gives the federal government virtually unlimited power to print, coin,
borrow, and spend as much money as it wants, regardless of tax rates or the amount of revenue
collected thereby. The electorate rarely punishes the President or members of Congress for taxing too
little or spending too much. It rarely rewards, and frequently punishes, politicians who want to either
raise taxes or cut spending or—shudder—do both simultaneously. Hence at the national level we have
annual deficits and a national debt seemingly out of control, but legally permissible and by no means
But most state and local governments—including Texas and its local governments—are required
by their constitutions and charters to balance their budgets. If the public wants lower taxes—not
merely lower tax rates but lower tax bills—it must usually accept spending cuts. If it wants more
spending in a given policy area, it must usually accept either tax increases or spending cuts in other
policy areas to supply the necessary revenue to cover the increased spending, or some combination of
tax increases and spending cuts. The degree to which tax rates and spending rates are changed may be
affected by the extent to which economic development programs to grow the economy are
successful—the more successful the programs, the less the need for tax increases or spending cuts.
Nonetheless, balanced budget requirements make more likely the need to either raise taxes to cover
increased spending, or spending cuts to permit lower taxes.
And spending cuts can be especially difficult for a reason too many lose sight of: Every dollar of
spending goes to somebody. It matters not whether the spending is on welfare, or national defense, or
public safety or public works, or parks and recreation, or anything else. It matters not whether the
program being considered for possible cuts is the wisest and most necessary program imaginable, or the most stupid, idiotic, or wasteful program one can conceive. Every dollar spent goes to someone, and
everyone whose money may be cut off will fight vigorously to prevent it. The lawmakers, whether
they’re members of Congress, or of state legislatures, or of city councils or other local governing boards,
are certain to make enemies through spending cuts, however justified or necessary those cuts may be.
This doesn’t mean that spending cuts aren’t possible. But it does mean that those who want
significant tax cuts at the local level must understand and support the need for spending cuts as well.
They must at the very least understand where the authority to cut taxes and spending lies—with the
local governing boards—city councils, ISDs, commissioners court, etc.—and not with the CAD or the
ARB. And they must be prepared to reward, with their campaigns, votes, and other means of support
those elected decision makers willing to make spending cuts deep enough to allow significant tax cuts.
Those most effective in working for spending cuts also actually attend the meetings of the
governing boards with taxing authority and participate in the discussions therein. They may even offer
suggestions on where economies which will allow tax cuts and spending cuts can be achieved.
Governing boards may discount those who are too ignorant, too emotional, or too bullying. But they are
more likely to be receptive to arguments based on facts and reason which are civilly presented, no
matter who presents them.
The Stephenville city government recently sent out a notice that the city council would have a
special work session at 10:00 am, 8/10, to work on the budget. It subsequently sent out a notice saying
the city council was meeting to “consider adjustments to additional requirements that were placed on a
planned development…” Assuming the budget will still be considered, those interested in taxes and
spending should attend and be heard. And those of you concerned with the tax and spending policies of
the other local governments in Erath County (or elsewhere) should find out when and where your taxing
authorities are meeting and participate to the greatest extent possible as well, regardless of what
changes you want made in relevant policies.
After all, it’s your money.
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