Texas is known for big things and that includes public spending. Complain all you want about Washington D.C. and the federal government’s always insatiable appetite for debt accumulation and more tax dollars. With $322 billion in local government debt here in our own backyards, Texans can have our own special brand of confidence that the all-star debtor status of our children and grandchildren is firmly secured, even growing, so that an adult life of financial uncertainty and instability are some of the few things on which they’ll likely be able to count.
Texas local government debt stands at $322 billion, second only to California in total debt and second only to New York in per capita debt. Often using the “for the children” mantra, school districts account for the largest growth sector of outstanding local government debt while the biggest percentage debt increase is in special purpose districts.
Texas is routinely noted as one of the nation’s fastest-growing states. For the year ending July 1, 2012, we had eight of the 15 fastest-growing large U.S. cities and towns. High tax states are losing population.
You’d think that might signal to the historically low tax states – like Texas – the importance of maintaining those policies that indeed are the basis for its current taxpayer migration popularity. It’s understood that population growth prompts the need for some increased infrastructure like new schools and roads. Does it, however, prompt the need for things like $60 million high school football stadiums?
In August 2012, just north of Dallas, the Allen Independent School District opened its $60 million, 18,000-seat football stadium. Forbes noted it as “generally discussed, at least outside of Texas, as the wretched excess of the state’s mania for high school football, the kind of schoolboy facility inspired by Jerry Jones‘ understated (that’s sarcasm) Cowboys Stadium.”
Upon its opening, the stadium “instantly become the nation’s largest and most expensive high school football stadium.” Featuring 4,000 seats more than district’s old stadium and though the stadium was only home to six regular season games during its first year, WFAA reported “district officials emphasize the athletic complex will be used every day, all year round. Among the amenities are a vast weight room, an area for the three-time state wrestling champs and an indoor golf practice area.”
Other stadium features include a 75-foot long high-definition video scoreboard, 42 concession stands and 192 public restrooms.
“If they didn’t want it, they could have voted it down,” Allen Coach Tom Westerberg told WFAA with regard to the stadium’s community support. “And they didn’t.”
But voters are often disinclined to vote against such proposals and the reasons why aren’t hard to see. Constructive opposition to local government spending issues places citizens against public officials who may be neighbors, fellow church or civic organization members, etc. Launching an oppositon campaign requires courage, an attribute existing more in theory and reputation than in reality.
Prominent local officials as well as business leaders are strongly encouraged to register support for new measures or else risk community “team membership” status. Average citizens not falling into step risk social ostracization or other exclusion from the “right” party rosters or Christmas card lists. Peer pressure is a common force used to encourage passage, but other routinely invoked mechanics in such elections are also easily identifiable.
With the November 2012 election, Texas voters continued embracing debt level largesse by approving $5.5 billion in new bond proposals – $7.7 billion upon adding the interest rarely addressed in bond proposal “sales” campaigns.
Nov. 5 will offer new opportunity to continue this trend of financial commitments and consequences destined to impede future generations’ prosperity for decades ahead. Besides nine proposed constitutional amendments, more than 70 local taxing entities will ask their voters to approve more than $5 billion in new bond packages. But again, will the outrage aimed at D.C. ever find its way to local communities?
A new 14,000-seat, $69.5 million football stadium for the in Katy Independent School District will be an interesting initiative to watch. While proponents claim the growing school district is in need of a second stadium, other term the measure as “grossly excessive” and failing to offer voters a choice of projects.
Cyndi Lawrence, president of an anti-tax group called Katy Libertea, said her members do not oppose all of the projects in the $99 million bond package, which includes $25 million to expand the Gerald D. Young Agricultural Sciences Center and $4.5 million for a new science, technology, engineering and math center.
“They are coming at us with a $99 million bond that is all or nothing,” Lawrence said. “Some of us support the STEM Center and the agricultural facilities but we feel that $69 million is way outlandish for a football stadium.”
Bet they are not mentioning that the real cost of the bond package will be the advertised rate plus another 40 percent or so for interest. Taxpayers were seriously betrayed as organizations including Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) and Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) – both of which exist based on school district memberships (i.e. public funds) – joined Texas Municipal League (TML), Texas Association of Counties (TAC) and a host of other taxpayer-funded organizations in killing legislation that would have provided taxpayers with new transparency regarding local government spending and debt.
In other words, dishonesty with regard to real bond proposal costs would have been disallowed. The mechanics of school district elections once more in play.
Texans for now seem happy to remain outraged with Washington while largely living out of touch with their own local governments’ spending and the long-term dangers being created. Interesting times will be ahead as future generations of all-star debtors live with the consequences of today’s all-star spending – spending created in part by all-star football and similarly questionable expenditures.