One of the main reasons the states fiscal situation looks so rosy is because our state government is shirking it’s duty. They’re shifting the burden of paying for services down to the local governments.
But lots of government officials in Texas — Democrat and Republican — feel that state tax relief simply would send unpaid bills down to local taxpayers, putting even more burden on local property taxpayers.
From the rise of the mentally ill in county jails to neglected roads, local officials say their budgets are feeling the effect of a decade of austerity in Austin.
“When they tout no new taxes, they are forcing (government costs) down to the local level,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.
Meanwhile, an exploding population outside municipal boundaries has increased the need for government services in many counties, including Bexar.
“Instead of hiring more deputies or providing more libraries or parks, we’re picking up the gaps left by Austin,” Wolff said.
“We’re having less choices” in writing a budget, he said. He also called it “disingenuous” to claim a balanced budget on the state level, when local governments are assuming the bills for many state services.
As local governments have taken on more responsibilities, local taxes have spiked.
A study by state Comptroller Susan Combs recently found that local property tax revenues increased 188 percent in Texas between 1992 and 2010, while population and inflation grew only 120 percent. During the same period, local sales taxes climbed 170 percent.
Much of the tax increase can be attributed to schools and hospital districts, two areas that have been slammed by state budget cuts. Cities and counties also are feeling a pinch inflicted by decisions in Austin.
Last year, the State Budget Crisis Task Force, a national group led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and former New York Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, found a “schizophrenic” relationship in Texas between the state and local governments.
The task force concluded that state leaders were “causing heartburn” by failing to “provide enough services to meet local needs, in effect devolving their cost to the local level.”
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, agreed.
“Some people like to sweep problems under a rug,” said Coleman, chairman of the House County Affairs Committee. “The best rug to sweep them under is the counties’ rug.”
In other words the state stopped raising taxes, but the local governments could not, and did not. And our “conservative” state government is doing to local governments, what it says it doesn’t like when the federal government does it to the state.
Skeptics say local governments simply should tighten their belts, but Lee noted that two-thirds of expenses incurred by Texas counties, on average, are not discretionary.
For example, former state prison inmates who violate their parole are housed in county jails while awaiting a hearing, which can take weeks.
Likewise, many defendants who have been sentenced to prison are left in county jails for up to 45 days before transfer to a state facility.
Counties receive no compensation for providing health care to this population.
Coleman has introduced a constitutional amendment prohibiting the Legislature from imposing costly new mandates on counties without compensation. It will not protect against state budget cuts, but additional costs would not be imposed, he noted.
A spokeswoman for Perry said the governor’s proposal for tax relief always has been a priority.
“He continues to believe money does more good in the pockets of taxpayers than in state coffers,” Lucy Nashed said.
She noted that Perry named a task force to study unfunded mandates and said, “If the counties or Chairman Coleman have a list of specific unfunded mandates, we’d love to take a look a them.”
That task force, however, delivered a six-page list to Perry on May 6, 2011, citing specific costs forced on local governments, from jails to transportation to education.
The Ravitch-Volcker task force said state lawmakers — if they could not resist the urge not to pay for mandates — should at least not impose limitations on how local governments can raise revenue.
And like with their intransigence with regards to Medicaid expansion, these bad fiscal decisions will only likely cost the taxpayers more in the long run, then if they would have just done the right thing to begin with. For more on why this was happening, State and local debt skyrocketing….cause and effect.