Council: No Marxism Around Here
City Council pushes homestead exemption by thinnest of margins
The high point (and low) of City Council's discussion of the property tax homestead exemption was Council Member Don Zimmerman's denunciation of "Marxism." At last Wednesday's special-called meeting (June 29) to confirm the exemption vote on third reading, Zimmerman broke his silence, he said, because "I thought we might get through this vote quickly without any pontificating, but we passed that point." (Zimmerman only approves of pontification when it is his own – for example, when he condescendingly grills some hapless city staffer about a consent agenda purchasing contract.) Having endured his colleagues' complaints that a percentage homestead exemption inevitably favors the wealthiest homeowners (a truism), Zimmerman declared that he wanted to address "a difference in political ideology in this city."
"I am a very strong opponent of Marxism," he continued. "This idea that people that have more expensive homes don't deserve to get a homestead exemption, that's not a Texas value, it's not a constitutional value – it is a Marxist value. And it's based on two premises of violating two ancient Hebrew commandments: Thou shall not envy and thou shall not steal." In Zimmerman's eyes, the five council members who voted against the 2% expansion of the exemption (to an 8% total) are effectively disciples of The Communist Manifesto. To the "taxation is theft" crowd, of which Zimmerman is a proud member, any attempt to make equitable (or at least more progressive) the burdens of public expenditures is tantamount to Red revolution.
As it happened, the reason the special-called meeting was necessary was that the previous regularly scheduled session (June 23) managed only a 6-5 majority – meaning that under law the change couldn't be passed on all three readings, but would need separate meetings and public notice. As a courtesy, one of the Marxists, CM Greg Casar, agreed to change his vote temporarily to enable two readings – but the third would require that Wednesday reprise. Over the course of the two discussions, Casar and other opponents – most adamantly CM Delia Garza – argued that the percentage exemption is unfair, not only to less wealthy homeowners (who get an even more piddling tax break) but to Austin's majority of renters (who get nothing, or worse). The geographic and racial split was also painfully obvious – eastern district members 1 through 4, joined by center city D9 Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo (who noted her relative anomaly), voted nay, while Mayor Steve Adler and all the western CMs voted aye.
Garza called it no coincidence that the CMs who represent the lowest-income districts oppose the exemption, saying, "It's bad policy to put this hole in our budget that has such a tiny impact [on homeowners]. And you know, the mayor and I have disagreed on if it's regressive or not, and we can continue to have that disagreement. But I hope we can agree that the most benefit of this [exemption] goes to the wealthiest." She and Casar both pointed to the proposals to assume some of the Austin Independent School District's burdens – for example, funding parent-support specialists – as threatened in advance by an arbitrary tax cut.
The mayor didn't budge on his campaign mantra that cutting a regressive tax (by whatever means) is by definition progressive, but he seemed more dismayed at the opponents pointing out the obvious: that the exemption is a lagniappe for the wealthiest homeowners. "I think it is really unfair," Adler said, "to cast this vote as a vote between rich and poor people in our community, and I don't think that's right. I think that's wrong. The impact on low-income people is much greater than the impact on rich people, of property taxes – that's why it's a regressive tax." He defended his vote as a message to all Austinites that "this Council hears them."
The original motion – initially a 14% increase, a grandstand reach for a full 20% – belonged to D8 CM Ellen Troxclair, who during the first discussion worked the foot-dragging dais down to 2%. She was joined by D10 CM Sheri Gallo, who pressed her colleagues on their 2014 campaign promises to reach the 20% level as soon as possible. They were joined by Zimmerman, and (as last year) Ann Kitchen (D5) and Leslie Pool (D7) (only D3's Pio Renteria moved from Yes to No). It might seem an unlikely alliance, except that (by 2014 calculations), nearly 75% of the exemption benefits will go to Districts 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 (another 11% to District 9), with roughly 25% alone to Gallo's District 10. (See "Point Austin: Color Me Exempt," Nov. 21, 2014). House by house, it's laughable money, but Zimmerman, Pool, and Gallo can now campaign for re-election on their dedication to taxpayers.
As a lump sum, however, it's not laughable at all. It's not just this year's $3.8 million that's at issue; as Garza pointed out, the 6% exemption enacted last year has already subtracted another $11.5 million from the upcoming budget, meaning not $3.8 million but over $15 million less to work with. When budget preparations resume in a month, what will be Council's pleasure? Those contractually bound increases for public safety employees ($10 million)? An estimated 12% increase in health insurance costs ($10.1 million)? Upgrades to communications and technology ($5.1 million)? Projected civilian employee wage increases ($4 million)?
Take your pick. All in all, the early budget projections ("Working the Budget," June 10) reflected roughly $56 million in both already approved "cost drivers" (e.g., those public safety raises) and likely "cost escalators" (that health insurance hit), before Council even arrives at its annual "wish list" of unmet needs (e.g., help for AISD, new fire stations, Downtown sobriety center, etc.) Wouldn't it be helpful to have an additional $15 million or so – this year and every year beyond – to address some of those ongoing community expenses?
Well, that money won't be there. And the expressed intention of the 6-5 Council majority – aka the Western Crescent – is to expand the exemption to 20%, or an estimated (annual) $36 million, over the next 2-3 years, whatever the economic conditions. To count your chickens after they hatch would apparently be flirting with Marxism.
See Council meeting details here.