Sunday, August 10, 2008

Austin's National Laboratory for Bad Governent: Leglislators "pushdown" with unfunded mandates on local governments

Texas No. 49, and proud of it?

August 10, 2008

The Waco Tribune Herald
Copyright 2008

An indictment of state priorities is manifest in a recent report about how little Texas spends on what it needs.

For those who rejoice at low taxes, consider:

One of the underlying points is that while state lawmakers claim the high ground, spending- wise, they too often issue unfunded mandates. That tendency makes local governments the black hats in raising taxes.

The next politician who says the state spends too much should review the report Building Texas by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

It points out that Texas ranks 49th in state taxes per capita.

And we wonder why Texas has to shut down highway construction for lack of funding, or why a waiting list stretches into the horizon for services for the mentally retarded and for individuals with mental health needs.

The irony is that though Texas ranks 49th in state taxes, it ranks 13th in the nation in property taxes. Why? In part, it is because of those unfunded mandates. They force cities, counties, school districts and community colleges to lean on local tax rates to do what the state orders.

Coming into the last Legislature, the subject of unfunded mandates was discussed by the Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform.

Gov. Rick Perry has assailed property appraisal creep as a “stealth tax.” Perry’s task force acknowledged grudgingly that unfunded mandates are even stealthier. They allow lawmakers to say they held down taxes, while foisting expenses onto local governments that force them to raise their taxes or to get by with fewer resources.

McLennan County Judge Jim Lewis says that 70 percent of his budget is state-required programs.

Some say that the syndrome called “push down” — when local governments raise the taxes, makes the process more representative than when the state raises them. That would be the case if the local governments had any say in the mandates. Instead, the mandates allow lawmakers and the governor to claim they are the picture of austerity.

Beyond the issue of unfunded mandates is the overarching question of what kind of a state we are and should be. Must we rely on toll roads for every highway construction project we need? Let’s hope not.

Must we let state parks wither, water resources dry up, services for the elderly, mentally ill and mentally retarded fall farther and farther behind as those populations grow?

One of the problems is that in recent years policymakers have put tax cuts ahead of these obligations.

The evidence shows that far from overtaxing its citizens, Texas is catching a free ride on local governments’ backs and also the backs of those who need its services the most.

© 2008 Waco

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