Aggressive, calculated actions of Texas school districts pursuing new tax dollars provide important insight for taxpayers. An onslaught of bond elections have secured Texas a top spot nationally in local government debt along with spending heavyweights California and New York. Tax ratification elections (TREs) are growing in popularity as taxing entities seek new ways to secure more public funds. The Temple ISD with a May 2011 bond election and now a Sept. 21 TRE scheduled offers opportunity to look into the mechanics of such elections.
Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered
The “for the children” mantra has worked well as school districts across Texas vigorously promote long-term bond debt. In fact, 33 percent of Texas’ more than $342 billion outstanding local debt belongs to school districts. From 2001-2011, public school districts’ total debt outstanding rose by 155.2 percent, far more than the increase in inflation.
Texas taxpayers struggle with stagnant wages, increasing costs and economic uncertainty. Everyone’s tightening their belts – except government. And school districts continue leading that charge.
When the going gets tough, the tough go for more public dollars?
School districts work this angle aggressively. The Texas school finance lawsuit whereby 500+ school districts are using taxpayer funds – from where else does the money come? – to sue Texas taxpayers for greater access to public funds is alive and well. Texas taxpayers are financing the state’s defense while local school district tax dollars fund hundreds of ISDs’ participation. Your tax dollars at work.
This is the same industry that spent the recent legislative session demanding more money, less accountability and no competition (as in school choice). 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.
During bond elections, entities typically use principal-only figures to sell their packages though the financial obligation to taxpayers is generally 40 percent greater due to interest. The killed transparency legislation would have mandated accurate, complete debt figures disclosed to the public – even on bond election ballots. For instance, while TISD promoted a $55 million package with its 2011 bond election, this bill would have required disclosure to taxpayers that the debt being undertaken was closer to $90 million due to an additional $30+ million of interest not discussed by school district officials.
Takes money to make money – yours!
Elections cost taxpayers money. From renting voting equipment and polling venues to printing ballots, public funds are used. Election personnel can also generate major expense.
Voters are accustomed to an official election day and an established timeframe in which early votes can be cast, but ISDs are now maximizing ballot casting opportunities by setting up early voting branch locations at school campuses.
With the May 2011 TISD bond election, district officials scheduled voting opportunities at 11 campuses creating an additional 19.5 early voting hours. In doing so, officials could ensure increased voter access for district employees as well as for parents and friends attending end-of-school events seemingly coordinated with the branch location schedule.
A similar schedule appears planned for the TRE as TISD students return back to school and 13 campuses host early voting sessions generating a total of 58.5 additional early voting hours.
For some it won’t cost a dime, for others merely pennies
The promotion of any bond election or TRE always brings a specifically-targeted presentation circulated within the community to rally support for the proposed measure.
An always-present notation within this information is a reminder that voters age 65 and older with a school district tax freeze will not pay additional school taxes with passage of the proposed measure.
A recent column discussing how upcoming generations will inherit the consequences of today’s massive spending and debt suggested maybe it’s time to update those “My child is an honor student” bumper stickers parents and grandparents used to proudly display. Perhaps a new version should read “My child is an all-star debtor thanks to your-government-entity’s-name-here”?
Pennies on a dollar, a cup of coffee a week
Another common pitch for justifying new taxes is to characterize increases in their lowest possible terms.
TISD says with its proposal “The tax rate will effectively be raised by 5.95 percent and will raise taxes for maintenance and operations on a $100,000 home by approximately $80.00.”
Numbers can be made to say many things – a point of which taxpayers should always stay mindful. As TISD taxpayers face a school tax increase, the city of Temple is also looking for more money. A Temple Daily Telegram article describing a recent hearing on the proposed municipal increase noted the average taxable value of a Temple residence homestead last year was $96,066 and that same residence this year is valued at $97,958.
To that point, TISD’s $100,000 home is now valued at $102,000 meaning the proposed TISD tax rate ($1.36 per $100 valuation opposed to the previous $1.28) will cost an additional $107 rather than the advertised $80.
Accurate assessments of tax increases must include reviewing property valuations. Sadly, taxing entities are not necessarily forthcoming with a complete picture.
As local debt mounts and spending continues, doing more with less seems applicable to everyone but government. Though the same mechanics are used statewide, the public largely remains unaware of its dollars often funding misrepresentation, deck-stacking and other actions that work against taxpayers’ best interests.
Educating children costs money. That’s understood. It’s just time, however, to return sensibility to discussions of spending and limits.
Want to do something for the children? Educate yourself. Don’t make your child (and others) an all-star debtor.