Property Tax “Reform?”

The two big issues this legislative session in Texas are “property tax reform” and “school finance.” They are inextricably linked but both are being tackled separately in the Lege. Both the House and the Senate have passed their own versions of each so that means there will be a conference committee to iron out the differences to come up with a single bill (for each) that is acceptable for both chambers.

I’m not going to get into the fine details of either of these bills. I would suggest the Texas Tribune for in depth unbiased analysis. Instead I’ll focus on my take on the bills and how I believe they’ll impact Jeff Davis County.

I’m just a bill…

First the good news. For the most part the school finance bill(s) are pretty good, or at least an improvement. The House version passed with broad bipartisan support and the Senate version passed unanimously. To my knowledge the actual formulas have not been released but it’s reported that while most school districts will see a benefit (i.e., an increase in state dollars to the district) some districts, particularly smaller districts that have benefitted from the “Robin Hood” plans, will be negatively impacted. I discussed this with one of the coauthors (an R from Harris County), and he offered to run the formula calculations for FDISD to see how we are impacted. According to him and the HB-3 formulas at the time the FDISD taxable rate will decrease from $1.17 to $1.09, and the district will receive a $107,000 positive gain from the state. Now, that said, these numbers will change as the bills get tweaked but this is a good benchmark to have. That should lower your property tax bill.

The more difficult bill is what will come from SB-2/HB-2, the so-called “Property Tax Reform” bills. (Because they are very similar and going to conference to produce a single bill, I’ll just refer to them in the singular.)

Let’s be very clear: SB-2/HB-2 will NOT lower your property taxes. What it will do is decrease the ability of your county to pay for current and future services and projects.

The main focus of this bill is a reduction in the amount that your county may collect in property taxes each year. The primary driver for this is the “rollback cap rate,” which is a little complicated but basically is the amount in total taxes your local entity (county and school in our case) may collect from existing properties, regardless of the tax rate or property values, without an election approving that tax increase. For a long time the rollback rate in Texas has been 8%. In other words if the total tax levy in Jeff Davis County increased for whatever reason by 7.999% or under from the previous year’s levy then no election needed. But 8% would require the county to hold an election for the voters to approve the increase.

Needless to say elections to approve tax increases are rarely successful. Y’all might recall we had one several years back when FDISD was in a serious situation after the state’s share of school funding had dropped so much. The proposal wasn’t a huge increase but it failed and FDISD had to cut a lot of programs and some positions.

Besides usually failing, elections cost counties money. So most counties end up doing a tax levy/budget shuffle to make sure they don’t exceed the 8% rollback cap and trigger an election.

SB-2/HB-2 will lower the rollback cap rate from 8% to 3.5%. Both bills started at 2.5% but that was a bit draconian for some moderate Rs and it was amended to 3.5% and exempts some school districts from the calculations.

In the Senate version counties with under $15 Million tax levy (JDC has about a $2M levy) will continue to have an 8% rollback rate BUT we must have a mandatory May 2020 election to determine whether we are also reduced to the 3.5% rate.

Unlike the school finance bills there is virtually no D support for this approach to “reform,” and some Rs have issues with it as well. They understand that things cost money, that services and products often increase in price well more than standard inflation. They know that the state and feds are continually requiring more from local governments while not providing the funding to pay for them: unfunded mandates. In the Senate there weren’t enough votes to bring it to the floor and some drama ensued around that.

So… presented with a problem – the prospect of ramming a flawed partisan bill with shaky support from their own party down the throats of Texas just to make good on promises (mainly to their base) – Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick and Speaker Bonnen got together and are floating a 1% statewide sales tax increase with most going towards “reducing property taxes.” (How the funds would be allocated to do that is unclear.) They are proposing it in the form of a Texas constitutional amendment, which will require 2/3 of both chambers and voter approval. Putting it forth as a constitutional amendment is a political tactic. The Lege could pass this without an amendment. But doing it as an amendment gets the politicians off the hook by putting it to the voters. If they vote “no” then, hey, we tried. If they vote “yes” then the voters, not the Legislature, increased your taxes. This proposal is drawing criticism from both sides of the aisle. The “no tax” crowd is opposed to any tax increase for virtually any reason. Others point out that a sales tax is the most regressive type of tax, hurting the poor most of all. This is true. So it’s uncertain how much traction this idea will get from the Lege or the voters.

One interesting sidebar to this is that Rep. Geren (R – Fort Worth) has, for several sessions, proposed a bill that would allow counties to add, by local election, up to a 1% sales tax, and that bill has always been squashed by leadership. But now the same leadership is proposing the same thing? What’s the difference? Well, the big difference is in Geren’s bill that money is going to the county. In the current proposal that money is going to the state. Hmmm… Texas has a history of collecting money for one thing and spending it on another, so that raises some red flags on its face.

Look, nobody likes paying taxes but everyone has to pay them. The question is who pays, how much they pay, and who is going to shoulder the weight of our tax burden in Texas. The elephant in the room is that Texas prefers property owners pay the bulk of taxes as opposed to having a state income tax or a higher corporate tax rate. There is vehement opposition to changing that dynamic. On the one hand that’s certainly been a benefit to industry choosing to make Texas their place of business and a robust economic engine. No question about it. But it’s also putting us in a position where home ownership becomes unattainable for many and a financial burden for some. It’s pushing rents higher all across the state, too. Property taxes in Austin for a mid-range home easily run around $1000/mo. We absolutely need to fix this and there’s no easy fix.

The bottom line is for us here in Jeff Davis County the school finance bill seems to be a benefit, while the property tax bill (at least what we know of it now) could make things worse. If our county votes to go to 3.5% cap it will take away a big chunk of the only source of revenue we have to fund things like our EMS, our law enforcement, and other essential services. Oh, there was an amendment to exempt essential county services but it failed in the Senate with every D plus Sen. Seliger (R – Amarillo) voting in favor, and every other R voting against it. We’ll just have to see what comes from the conference committee. Lt. Gov. Patrick continues his petty partisan management of the Senate by appointing no Ds to the conference committee – for the first time in over 30 years. Speaker Bonnen has yet to announce the House’s members to the committee but given his leadership this session it’s a safe bet it will be bipartisan and include some good minds across the political spectrum.

Will Texas get a bill that actually reforms property taxes in Texas or a bill that continues the trend of lower taxes, less services? There’s no way to know right now but what I do know is if we get what’s on the table right now it’s going to make things harder for us here in Jeff Davis County.

Intro to the “Jeff Davis County Pct 2” category

I want to be proactive about informing the citizen of Jeff Davis County about our local and state government goings-on. I thought about posting these rambles on Facebook and maybe that *should* be the place. But Facebook, even in our local community page, seems to be where people go to talk down or at others, to post things they would almost certainly never say in person. It’s divisive and, frankly, exhausting and disheartening. So I think I’ll try here instead, at least at first. Maybe some of these posts will be linked to FB if appropriate. So let’s give it a go here, eh?

There’s a difference between fact and opinion. I’ll make every effort to get the facts right but I may not have all the information or I might flat get something wrong. If I do, let me know (and provide credible sourcing). These writings are, by definition, my interpretations so they’ll reflect my views.

Barber Tight

I stopped in a barbershop in El Paso this week to get a much needed haircut. It’s always a gamble but the sign on the road said “Voted Best Barbershop” so what the heck.

The young man who cut my hair was named Jesse. He looked like he was in his early 20s. You can always tell an experienced barber by the way they handle the tools, whether it be clippers, scissors or razor, and this fellow’s skill and care seemed that of someone with a lot of experience. He told me he was born in Los Angeles but had grown up in El Paso and he had been cutting hair for a long time, since he was about 16. On the street. He was a street barber in his neighborhood. “But I decided I should get my license, be a real barber.”

He was doing such an awesome job I asked if he would trim my beard and mustache, to clean it up. I told him it’s sometimes hard to get it even yourself in the mirror. “Yeah, we’ll get it ‘barber tight.'”

I went back a couple months later and he wasn’t there. I know barbers move around a lot but I wonder whether he moved on or went back to street cutting.

Vote Yes AND No

Editorial for the Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch – August 25, 2014

In a few days some of you will go into the voting booth to make a decision that affects not just you but your children, grandchildren, your neighbors and your community. The decision you are being asked to make is whether you, as a citizen of Jeff Davis County, will pay more in property taxes in order to make up for some of the funds taken away from our schools by the Texas Legislature.
One way to make that decision is to look at short term self-interests. “I don’t have kids in school,” or “I pay too many taxes already!” Both of those statements are true for me.
Another way to make that decision is to look at the long term. Do our town’s children deserve to have an arts program? Music? Sports? Should we be able to hire educators that challenge our kids to rise higher than the average percentile? Does our town benefit from extra-curricular programs that encourage healthy productive citizens and help keep our kids from looking to drinking, teen sex and drugs for diversion?
A third way to make that decision is to look at why we have to make it at all and then do what’s right. Now, I’m not talking about Pete or Poncho or Jose, but when we send legislators to Austin and Washington who vow to cut government spending don’t be surprised when they do just that. But understand exactly what they mean when they say it: They’re not talking about cutting government spending that benefits those who fund their campaigns and give them cushy jobs when they leave office. They’re talking about taking billions of dollars in education funding and handing the bill to you and me. This is the chickens coming home to roost.
These guys talk about “small government,” sure. But they love big government when it benefits their donors. Just keep those campaign checks and PAC money coming. Small government for you. Big government for their cronies.
So when you go into the voting booth next week do what’s right for our kids and our community and vote YES. I don’t like it either but it’s the right thing to do. Then when you go back to the voting booth this November do the right thing again and vote NO to those “small-government” snake oil salesmen who give our tax dollars to their wealthy donors and then leave us to pay the bills back home. If you don’t then get ready to open your wallet again.

John Graves

John Graves passed this week at the age of 92 on his ranch called “Hard Scrabble” near Glen Rose, Texas. Graves was a writer, best known for “Goodbye To A River,” a book that has been described as one of the finest works of Texas literature ever written. I’m not sure whether calling something “Texas literature” is meant to describe it or apologize for it. Or maybe it’s used in simple enjoyment of the novelty of having the words “Texas” and “literature” in the same sentence.

Graves could be considered in many ways the literary offspring of the revered Texas Triumvirate – writer & folklorist J. Frank Dobie, naturalist Roy Bedichek and historian Walter Prescott Webb – his writing distilling the craft of all three into one man’s words.

I was lucky enough to have my photography linked to those words when Texas Monthly hired me to make a photograph for an article about the epidemic of Oak Wilt Disease which was rapidly devastating the Texas live oak population. At that time there were just a few pockets of widespread Oak Wilt and Texas A&M wasn’t exactly sure what it was or how to stop it. I took my old 4×5 up to a ranch not terribly far, in Texas terms, from Graves’ Hard Scrabble and photographed a single majestic oak standing naked against a patented Texas sunrise. When the article, titled “Dead Oaks,” came out I was proud to see the byline “by John Graves” next to my photograph.

I never knew John Graves and I have a horrible confession to make as a Texan educated back when Texas cared about education: I never read “Goodbye To A River.” Oh, I’ve read things that Graves has written, many things, but it’s been a while. On the occasion of his death somebody posted a link on some social media site – that ephemeral medium that is instantly gone and never yours – to another article in Texas Monthly, much more recent, about guns that Graves had written. I looked it up and started reading.

My god, I’ve sure been reading a lot of crap in the last several years. The best make it look so easy and effortless, like watching Eric Clapton play the guitar. The first sentences of “Great Guns” are simple, evocative prose that connects and constructs, and reminds you of the power of language in the hands of a true artist. And then it gets better.

Are there literary offspring of John Graves’ generation of Texas writers? I’m sure there are. Name your favorites in the comments. In the meantime I know what book I’m reading next.

Great Guns

by John Graves

The author John Graves, photographed on August 22, 2006, holding a Winchester Model 97 shotgun outside his home in north-central Texas. Photography by Michael O’Brien
I AM NOT A MEMBER OF THE National Rifle Association, nor do I collect rare firearms, attend gun shows, or subscribe to gun magazines. I am not, in other words, a “gun nut” and, in fact, can sympathize to a degree with the views of those who detest all such weapons and want them regulated. You can’t have lived in a large American city for any length of time, as I have, without seeing that such people’s opinions may have a certain amount of validity.
But I grew up in a time and a region that almost automatically sparked interest in not only guns but also the hunting of birds and beasts, in which pursuits such weapons were and still are central components. Nor did a war experienced in the U.S. Marine Corps and a functional country life during most of the past forty-odd years do anything to hamper the affinity.

On writing

I wrote the following to a friend, a writer, editor & scholar.  Then I decided it should be here.

UntitledSeems like each creative interest ebbs and flows throughout my life and swings between photography, music and writing, although the writing has never really blossomed.  And lately I have a strong pull to write but I’m uncertain exactly how to get on with it.  I’ve even thought about taking some kind of online writing course but wouldn’t know where to find a good one, or if it would do more harm than good… y’know…?  I kind of want to write short articles/editorials/essays/whatever that (hopefully) well-express a point of view that will help make people think about issues and (hopefully) act as a result.  Kind of like this and this.

I realized a few days ago that I pour whatever creative juices I have for writing into… emails…  I could make myself feel a little better about this and use the word “correspondence” instead, painting a picture of Jefferson, Emerson, Vonnegut in my head, writing letters.  But it’s emails.  I realized that often I’ll draft, craft and edit so that whatever I’m saying to whatever person is exactly the way I think it should be.  I’m doing it now.  And I think that’s a little stupid, perhaps even sad.  But when I sit down to Write something (with a capital W) it’s so fucking hard to pull it together to actually write.  I realized that the reason I do that is because, mostly, emails have to get written – someone is expecting a reply or a contact from me.  Essays don’t have to be written.  In an email there is probably just one person, someone I know at least a little, and they aren’t reading it like it’s anything more than what it is.  It’s out the door, read, and then it’s gone.  No big pressure, no big expectations.  Same with music and photographs. Music is totally transitory.  And with my photographs I long ago found that emotional place where I can just put it out there and if people like it great, if not, great too.  People look and they move on.  Writing seems so very different than those.

Even as I’m writing this one possible bit of self-advice is forming in the back of my head.  Authors of books I’ve read offer up their wisdom and experience.  I hear Stephen Pressfield saying, “Just sit down and start writing. Keep doing it. Every day.” and Anne Lamott saying “Yes, it will be shitty. It will get better.”  I know.  I just have to impose some sort of structure and deadlines on my own writing I guess.  And not just to do the writing but to share it.  Seth Godin is now saying: “You have to ship, just creating isn’t enough.”

So, here’s the first shipment.

John Mellencamp says you’re stealing from him, so Google should give him money

John Mellencamp wrote an article for Huffington Post. I wouldn’t have noticed either except that Bob Lefsetz happened to mention it in a recent newsletter. Mr. Mellencamp says, essentially, that you’re stealing from him and that ISPs and Google should pony up and give him some money.

I posted this as a comment to the article:

The real problem is not illegal downloads. That ship has sailed, sorry Mr. Mellencamp. People turned to free downloads because the industry refused to evolve.

The real problem is the system of tracking, collecting and distributing royalties in the US is fundamentally broken – not necessarily by design but in practice. The system, as implemented, benefits the top 10% of artists at the expense of the bottom 90% and massive amounts of money is donated to politicians to keep the system broken. Sound familiar?

Every other country in the the world has a single Performing Rights Organization (PRO). Music sales, plays and performances are properly tracked and the artists get paid. It’s not rocket science. The US is the only country in the world with more than one PRO. The PROs shake down small clubs and coffeehouses for thousands of dollars per year yet there’s almost a 100% chance that the artists who perform in those clubs will never see a dime of that money. Lady Gaga will. Probably John Mellencamp will. Or used to.

The solution: 1) a single PRO entity; 2) proper tracking of radio airplay and other performances, not “sampling”; 3) a fair method of establishing and enforcing royalty collections; 4) pro-rata distribution of royalties to all rights-holders. Other countries do this. We can too.

If you really want to help the artists – all of them – insist we have a single PRO in the US.

Our Elections: The New Sport of Kings

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In a recent Gallup Poll, the corrupting influence of money in politics is the #2 most important issue to American voters, just after jobs. It’s more important than the deficit, terrorism or any other issue. Why do we not hear one word about this from our candidates? The facts speak for themselves.

“Our elections have replaced horse racing as the sport of kings,” writes journalist (and Texan) Bill Moyers. “These kings are multibillionaire, corporate moguls who by divine right–not of God, but [of the Supreme Court’s] Citizens United decision–are now buying politicians like so much pricey horseflesh.”

Congressional candidates with the most money win 93% of the time. Once elected our legislators typically spend 50-70% of their time fundraising. If they want to stay in office they have to raise massive amounts of cash – the average US congress election in 2010 cost $1.2 Million Dollars. (It’s more now.) Think about that. That’s raising $50,000 each and every month while in office. Who has that kind of money to put into politics? Not you and me, not even collectively. Not even the unions: In the recent Wisconsin election, unquestionably the battleground election of corporations vs. unions, corporations and anonymous PACs outspent unions by 8 to 1 – and won. The wealth we’re talking about has to come from the “kings” Mr. Moyers describes.

Why do you think they give this kind of money to politicians? It’s simple. Return On Investment. In 2010, a good if not spectacular year for the stock market, the average blue chip stock in the US earned about 11% Return On Investment (ROI), so for every dollar invested the investor earned eleven cents. In the 111th Congress for every $1 spent in lobbying by oil, gas and coal companies $59 in subsidies were received. That’s a 5900% ROI. In 2004 multinational corporations spent $283 Million Dollars lobbying for a tax break to bring offshore corporate profits back to the US, promising to spend the money saved in taxes on creating jobs at home. In return they received $63 BILLION Dollars in tax breaks. That’s a 22,000% ROI. (And, ultimately, the companies only spent 9% of the tax break savings on jobs in the US). The pharmaceutical industry spent $119 Million lobbying congress to bar Medicare from negotiating for competing drug prices. This resulted in $90 BILLION in additional revenue per year. That’s a 77,500% ROI. This is why money is pouring into politics. Buying politicians is the best investment you can make by far.

The sad truth is because of this broken system our representatives no longer represent us, they represent their funders – those who fund their campaigns to get elected and who hire them when they leave politics.

Our politicians are addicted to the money. Their professional lives depend on it. Lawrence Lessig, professor of ethics at Harvard School of Law, uses this analogy effectively: The alcoholic may face his marriage failing, losing his job, ruining his health and countless other catastrophic events. But the alcoholism is the first problem to fix – until that is addressed no other problems can be. We have many serious problems to face as a nation – jobs, health care, deficit, wars, crumbling infrastructure, immigration, just to name a few. Most of us have different ideas on the way those problems should be solved. Says Mr. Lessig in his wonderful little handbook for citizens, One Way Forward, “We don’t have a common end. We do have a common enemy. …The corrupting influence of money is the first problem facing this nation. …Unless we solve this problem, we won’t solve anything else.”  No matter what issue you personally feel strongest about there is zero chance it will be properly addressed unless we fix this issue of legalized corruption.

Unfortunately the solution may not come from our Congressmen, even those with the best of intentions, the highest character and a backbone strengthened by decades in politics when they leave for Washington. They are virtually powerless against the status quo and the addiction to money. And frankly there is little incentive to change things because the current system is how politicians gain wealth, influence and security. Maybe a few, hopefully our own Pete Gallego among them, will lead to empower citizens again in this country, to right this faltering ship of state. But it’s up to us to insist they do it, and failing that, to do it ourselves. (Join Wolf-PAC Texas!)

If Pete Gallego takes up this cause of restoring democracy in America it will likely be the hardest thing he’s ever done. But what could be more important or more just? Perhaps another Texan can be his inspiration. When LBJ was sworn into office he immediately took up the cause of civil rights. His advisors told him not to do it, that he would fail, that it would doom his presidency and the Democratic party for decades. LBJ replied, “What the hell is being President for?” And he passed the Civil Rights Act.

Pete needs our votes, certainly. But unfortunately he needs money even more to make it to Washington. Let’s do what we can to help Pete get there. But let’s also send him with the primary mission to remove money from politics so he doesn’t need it to stay there.

What Are You Leaving Behind?

What are you leaving behind?

via Seth’s Blog by Seth Godin on 5/26/12

Trail after wildfire, Davis Mtns. Texas

I love watching contrails, those streams of white frozen exhaust that jets leave behind. It’s a temporary track in the sand, and then the sun melts them and they’re gone.

Go to Montana and you might see the tracks dinosaurs left a bazillion years ago. Same sort of travel, very different half-life of their passage.

All day long you’re emailing or tweeting or liking or meeting… and every once in a while, something tangible is produced. But is there a mark of your passage? Fifty years later, we might hear a demo tape or an outtake of something a musician scratched together while making an album. Often, though, there’s no trace.

I’m fascinated by blogs like this one, which are basically public notes and coffee breaks by a brilliant designer in between her ‘real’ work. Unlike tweets, which vanish, Tina’s posts are here for a long time and much easier to share and bookmark. Her trail becomes useful not just to her, but to everyone who is interested.

What would happen if you took ten minutes of coffeebreak downtime every day and produced an online artifact instead? What if your collected thoughts about your industry became an ebook or a series of useful instructions or pages or videos?

What if we all did that?