ZacTax Roundup: August 2020

How committed is Texas to local control? And what would no college football mean for local communities?

On Tuesday, August 18, 2020, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued the following statement:

A response to the proposal recently approved by the Austin City Council to change the operations and funding of its police department, the Governor’s Tweet is, in our opinion, a bit heavy handed. Austin’s proposal involves eliminating three academies previously scheduled for FY21, relocating approximately $80m in “civilian” police operations to other parts of the city, and reallocating approximately $50m in police funding to “alternative forms of public safety.”

The wisdom of this plan is not for us to say. We do not have the expertise or background knowledge of the Austin Police Department to determine whether these proposals will succeed or fail. It’s entirely possible that the proposal, if fully implemented, will have disastrous consequences for the most vulnerable residents of the state capital.

But at the same time, the implementation of a punitive property tax cap over policy disagreements represents a dramatic shift in the relationship between the State of Texas and its municipalities. A shift that we earnestly should try to avoid.

Do we believe in local control or not?

As a politically conservative state, we hear a lot about the value of local control - of federalism if you will - from Texas politicians. Interestingly, though, local control seems to defy the typical partisan divide. Liberal and Democratic mayors and city council members will argue for local control alongside their conservative and Republican counterparts. When you move one rung up in the electoral ladder, state legislators will often argue against federal overreach into state affairs, regardless of party affiliation.

The beauty of federalism, upon which our entire system of government stands, is that it allows for diversity and experimentation. It becomes quite difficult to maintain that system when one’s support for local control is dependent upon which branch of government one represents. The Governor and state legislators cannot, in good faith, decry the apparently meddling in their affairs by the national government in Washington while punishing home-rule cities for managing their own.

As an aside, we should not be naive to think this is the first time something like this has happened. A de facto nationwide drinking age exists because a Republican president signed legislation passed by a Democrat-controlled congress that threatened to “defund” federal highway dollars if states didn’t set a drinking age of 21. (Again, there are no real partisan boundaries on the question of local control.)

Every city across this state is different, from demographics to climate, transportation access to historical growth patterns, and much more. Texas has been successful because we have historically embraced this diversity, and that includes the specific needs of each city when it comes to public safety.

Do our state officials really know better than our local leaders the unique challenges facing each individual community? Has our Governor devoted enough attention, in addition to the duties required of his position, to evaluate the public safety spending and operations of more than 1,000 cities? From Texline to South Padre, from El Paso to Burkeville, is the Legislature so confident that not a single city in the state might reasonably reduce its police department budget that it is willing to place property tax caps on them for doing so?

Leveraging caps on property taxes to demand specific local public safety decisions is also likely to come with unintended consequences.

  • Will cities be unable to come together to share common infrastructure on a regional basis if it would result in net reductions in public safety spending? In other words, will we end up punishing the search for efficiencies?

  • If debt service costs are located in the police department’s budget, will the retirement of debt be seen as a reduction in spending?

  • Will the formation (or elimination) of Crime Control and Prevention Districts be an unintended casualty?

  • Will cities be forced to implement budget and accounting tricks to avoid these caps? Is it worth the time and attention of our local managers to pull electricity costs from non-departmental budgets, or create new internal service funds simply to avoid a tax freeze?

At the time of writing, no formal plan has been released. We don’t know what thresholds or specific actions might trigger a property tax cap, so the reader will have to indulge the prior speculation. But the unfortunate truth is that there are always unintended consequences when decisions like these are made. Good policy is often the last thing to come from reactionary responses.

How does the State removing local control affect the Texas Miracle?

The Texas Miracle is a widely used term to describe the pro-business/pro-development nature of Texas. The problem is most of these pro-business and pro-development decisions are made at the local level. Texas is blessed with a relatively stable legal environment and an established professional management culture within our local governments. Large scale economic development is complicated and the thousands of decisions needed to attract, build, and retain jobs are made at the local level. Removing the flexibility of local control in any fashion, but especially in regards to revenue, would significantly hamper local governments’ ability to support the Texas Miracle. 

Many moving parts are required to keep the wheels of the Texas Miracle turning. The partnership built between the State and localities is a major reason for the rapid growth of our state. The State continually works with locals to tackle large statewide issues such as water, drainage, and transportation funding to keep Texas competitive. Locals work directly with the Governor's office on large scale business recruitment, grants, and local incentives. These relationships matter, and the Governor’s rhetoric regretfully continues to erode a productive working relationship.

The drive and competition of local governments allows for experimentation of economic incentive packages, development styles, and government investment. Without this local government experimentation, Texas would not be one of the nation’s leading economic engines. Local governments make up the high powered horsepower of a really fancy truck; without local governments the State would still be “big and bright,” but stuck in neutral.

Is there a limiting principle?

Policies such as the Governor’s proposal often come without the benefit of limiting principles, the basic assumptions that identify when the action being taken has gone too far. Will the same hold true in this instance?

Is public safety the only local function that the Governor and Legislature would be willing to implement punitive property tax caps to protect? One could fairly argue that - to varying degrees - streets, parks, and libraries all contribute to the safety of the public. Is there any principled reason why cuts to those services couldn’t come with a similar penalty?

Slippery slope arguments aren’t really our cup of tea, and we certainly do not wish to add more hyperbole to these topics. But it is worth pointing out that punitive actions taken on behalf of one cause could surely be used for another, especially when they’re undertaken without clearly defined principles behind them.

More to the point, local governments have been told repeatedly that property tax caps implemented in the state legislature are a response to rapid and unnecessary increases in local tax revenue. They are not punishment, we are told, they are a means to limit the growth of government and put property tax increases up to the direct will of the people (rather than those whom the people ostensibly elected to decide such things).

If property tax caps are now to be used as punishment for the “wrong” policy choices, why should we believe they haven’t actually been punishment all along? It is difficult to envision a scenario where even raising the possibility of punitive tax caps would improve the already strained relationship between the state and its cities, let alone actually implementing them.

Is this debate distracting us from solving real problems?

Zooming out, our real concern with this discussion is that it serves as a distraction from solving some rather vexing problems. The history of policing in this country is complex and multi-faceted. Each community has its own challenges to address. In a time like this, we need less dramatic shifts in policy choices.

Whether the City of Austin’s plan will even be fully implemented remains to be seen. Most of the proposed cuts and reallocations are tentative, pending the results of a yearlong process. But there’s no doubt that it’s a big number and it makes for a big headline: “Austin City Council cuts police department budget by one-third” will certainly ruffle some feathers. This is a pendulum swinging action by the City of Austin, there’s no getting around that. Most people believe that at least some changes are needed in how we police. Like most things in life, though, we’d probably be better served with incremental adjustments than wholesale changes.

This need not be a binary choice, no matter how confident the masses on social media are that it is. Our public policy debates tend to operate in the high-confidence/low-knowledge portion of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Everyone seems to be very confident in their positions, even though most of us don’t have enough knowledge individually to justify that confidence. Typically, the more of an “expert” you become on a topic, the more frequently you answer questions about that topic with a variation of “it depends.” That’s because this stuff is hard! We could all benefit from a little more humility when discussing these very difficult questions.

That’s easier said than done, of course. We all want to “do something”, but simply giving in to the “do something” feeling rarely works out in the long run.

Recent polling has shown that the people most likely to be impacted by policing are often more averse to reductions in police budgets. Austin’s proposal may end up being a terrible idea that causes real harm to people; or it might end up being much ado about nothing.

The question is, who should decide whether the City of Austin is allowed to try something different? As advocates for local governments, we believe that cities should have the right to make their own decisions and bear the responsibility for the results.

If Covid cancels college football, what happens to local economies?

Our original plan for this month was to write about the potential impact of college football being cancelled. So far, most major conferences featuring Texas universities appear to be doing their best to play at least some games this season. On top of that, we found it really tough to tease out the sales tax impact of college football based only on public data and a somewhat limited sample size.

Waco, Lubbock, and Bryan/College Station are perhaps the only “college” towns in Texas with football programs big enough to show some aberration in sales tax collections. With 10s of thousands traveling to those cities at least a couple times a month from September through November, we hoped to find a statistical difference in the proportion of revenue generated for those cities during football months relative to the rest of the state. Unfortunately, the data just weren’t clear enough.

But there’s a lot more to college football’s impact on local communities than sales tax collections. If this is something that interests you, here are a few reads on the subject:

And now for something completely different…

When you use general purpose software to manage critical elements of very important work, like finance or science, for example, you might run into some issues that just can’t be resolved. Scientists recently had to rename a handful of human genes because Excel would auto-format their names to dates. For example, MARCH1 becomes 1-Mar” (actually, it becomes 43891* since Excel stores dates as numbers).

Although this can be “fixed” by manually setting formatting before data entry, it is error prone (for example, spreadsheets may be saved as CSV, which removes all formatting metadata, and then later reimported into Excel).

Long story short, sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands!

* 43891 represents March 1, 2020. Future readers may find Excel auto-formatting “MARCH1” to a different value.

Across the web…

When Street Design Leaves Some People Behind

This piece from CityLab looks at new trends in accessible street design and argues that, like most things, solving the accessibility issue will be a tough nut to crack.

Are we doing this right? Budgeting Edition

Our friends at Verdunity tackle everyone’s favorite part of working in local government: budgeting.

Salt Lake City planners have about 30 minutes a day for the big stuff

Another hat-tip to the folks at Verdunity for sharing this article about what can happen when the small things crowd out time needed to focus on the big things.

Other stuff from us…