Point Austin: A Few Thoughts About Taxes

You don't get what you won't pay for

Point Austin

No newspaper ever lost readers by complaining about high taxes.

That's worth keeping in mind when considering the Statesman's annual screeds on the subject, which generally range from the misleading to the hysterical, but always in the service of "fiscal responsibility" – by which the editors apparently mean, "We want the infrastructure and services the city needs, but we'd rather not have to pay for them."

Sign me up.

Recently I've been repeatedly reminded of this contradiction by the paper's schizophrenic coverage of the proposed medical school project, which will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot as the first Prop­o­si­tion 1. The first two-faced editorial ("Central Texans deserve truth about their taxes") appeared in late August, as mostly a rant about multiple taxing jurisdictions. It included this curious sentence: "If voters approve the 5-cent increase Central Health is proposing to help finance health care expenses associated with a medical school for the University of Texas, and we urge them to do that, bills would increase another $100 on average in 2014." (The italics are mine.)

The five-cent Central Health increase is by far the biggest new bite on this fall's taxing menu, and the daily's editors went on the record "urging" voters to approve it – while excoriating local officials in general for raising taxes. The paper's subsequent coverage has taken this same contradictory tone, always emphasizing the proposed "63% increase" in the Cen­tral Health, almost never noting that the percentage is relatively high because the current tax (at 7.89 cents per $100 valuation) is so low.

Down Is Up

The same is true of the Statesman's continuing pot-shots at the city's pending bond proposals, seven expenditure propositions (Props. 12-18) that altogether total $385 million. The daily has taken the position that not only are the bond issues too much too soon – without once yet specifying a single project to which they object – but city officials are lying when they say that passing the bonds will not raise the tax rate. As the daily sees it, maintaining the same tax rate constitutes a tax increase – because should the bond votes fail, the rate would eventually decline. So there.

"Forget the nonsense coming from elected officials at City Hall, who have repeatedly told the public that issuing $385 million in bonds won't require a tax rate increase," sneer the editors. "Their arithmetic doesn't add up. If Austin voters approve the bonds, it will be new debt that must be paid for with new taxes." No tax cut constitutes a tax hike? Not even Grover Norquist has tried to sell that chop-logic to his disciples.

The argument might make more sense if the citizens bond committee and City Council hadn't spent a year whittling down a $1.6 billion city needs list to the no-increase total; or if, in the very same Sept. 9 editorial, the editors hadn't written, "It's hard to argue with many of the spending priorities in November bond package for such things as roads, open spaces, parks, libraries, affordable housing and social services. ... There will be plenty of time to debate the merits of those projects; we look forward to participating in those discussions." Where were these geniuses when "those discussions" were taking place, in public and online, over the course of the last year, right on up to the final council meetings?

The Cost of Community

None of this means that the bonds shouldn't be debated, or that voters should feel compelled to vote for any or all of these items, including the med school funding. But: If the bonds are "hard to argue with" but the editors don't want to spend the money, then make the hard arguments. Or, if the Statesman's editors believe the med school is a bad or too expensive investment – even with a potential $1.46 to $1 federal Medicaid match – they should just say so, and risk the direct wrath of local big shots. Otherwise, this generic carping about "high taxes" is simply cheap pandering.

The same is doubly true of the paper's reporting on the general funds tax rate, and its denunciation of the "significant – and unnecessary" tax increase imposed by the new city budget. That increase amounts to $20 a year on a median-priced home – if 20 bucks is "significant," when most Austin residents (as renters) will in fact be paying even less, then let's all sign Norquist's no-tax pledge, and be done with it. (Mayor Lee Leffingwell didn't help by his last-minute symbolic vote against a "huge" tax increase – it isn't huge, and his proposal to cut it arbitrarily to $10 was just disingenuous.)

The editors are on more solid ground when they complain about increased city fees, which are not only rising (roughly $200 a year) but are inevitably more regressive than property taxes. It's the same dodge used increasingly by the Legislature, living in the Norquist Anti-Tax Box while always trying to have it both ways. But we've all watched the lengthy debates over water rates and (especially) Austin Energy fees – by far the biggest hits – loudly addressed and fussed over and compromised, all in public. Those are actually substantial, but arguably unavoidable increases, and they wouldn't be touched by a city property tax freeze, which would just undermine city services across the board.

It's a Texas truism that in the absence of a state income tax and with the refusal of the Legislature to adequately fund public education, local property taxes filling the gap are too high. The same pattern is repeating in state health care – hence the local medical school proposal that also promises to address the crisis in indigent and uninsured care. The Statesman editors should argue against those things directly, if they wish. But they should drop the hypocrisy that all these things are needed – we just shouldn't have to pay for them.

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