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.

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 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.

Photo Essay: Mexico’s Drug War – 50,000 Dead In 6 Years

A masked Mexican soldier patrols the streets of Veracruz, on October 10, 2011. Soldiers of the Army, Navy and members of Federal Police patrol the streets of the city as part of “Veracruz Safe Operation” after a rising tide of violence plaguing this tourist city. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)


This is what the unwinnable “war on drugs” looks like.  Look at it.  This is what we are doing.  All sides profit from the carnage – the cartels, the law enforcement and incarceration industry, the politicians, the military-industrial complex.  Money drives this reign of terror from all angles and there is no incentive to change the status-quo because the money just keeps coming.  It’s all about the money.  This is a genocide and our so-called representatives in government have blood on their hands because they won’t even have the conversation about legalization.  Portugal legalized drugs and their drug abuse declined by 50%.  I don’t do drugs but I have a conscience.  Look at these photos and say you don’t care.


  So here’s the deal: The guys (and gals) who work on Wall Street and for brokerage houses know that they’ve been complicit in the largest redistribution of wealth to the top 1% since before the Great Depression. They’re not stupid. They know the damage it’s doing to our economy, the middle class, heck even themselves. I know a few folks that work for brokerage firms and they sincerely acknowledge that the repeal of Glass-Steagall and other financial deregulation was horrible for their industry and the economy.  And it made a select few of them obscenely rich; they joined the 1%. They see that and many get sucked in to the game. They want to be the guy who makes that multi-billion-dollar score, to move up the ladder, to be one of the 1%.  You can’t blame them, wouldn’t you?  It’s all the more difficult because their jobs, their future, depends on joining the culture that enables this kind of greed.

Imagine you were let loose on the floor of a casino with somebody else’s money and you get to invent game.  You get to make the rules of the game – rules that are so complicated most humans cannot even understand them.  In fact, you don’t even have to tell anyone what the game is.  You make wild crazy bets.  When you win you keep the money, and when you lose, well, it’s not your money so who cares?  That’s EXACTLY what our financial system is.

It’s a system destined ultimately to fail but the greedy just want to extract as much as they can before it implodes. Then they say “The money’s gone. Nothing I can do.” It’s legalized robbery, plain and simple.

No matter how they try to spin it our lawmakers – both Democrat and Republican, Executive and Congress, even the Judicial – have done virtually nothing to change it.  In fact they promote it because they are complicit themselves.  They don’t represent you or me, they represent those who fund their campaigns.

But most people in the financial industry are not part of that. They are honest professionals who know that proper and strong regulation is not only necessary to keep things humming along profitably, as it did for the more than half a century before Glass-Steagall was repealed, but in all reality essential to keep the system from blowing up completely. Again.

But what can those good & honest folks in the financial industry do?

They can add their voice. Speak up against the corruption from the inside.

Get on the right side of history and be proud to tell your kids you took a stand to help make our country great again.

A new CCC

One of the things I’m most thankful for about spending the last couple years with my Mom and Bob before their passing was spending hours talking to them about their lives.  I wish I would have recorded some of it.

Bob told us of looking for work during the Depression.  FDR was already in and had ramped up the great recovery for the nation.  The best jobs were the ones as part of that recovery; building the great dams, roads, bridges.  And those with the Civilian Conservation Corp building our state and national parks, forest roads and other infrastructure.  Bob got a job in Washington state planting trees.  I don’t know whether the planting was done to reforest clearcutting, a fire, or what, it doesn’t matter.

He talked about having a toe-sack full of seedlings and a kind of a long bladed hoe.  You would take a few steps, whack the hoe into the ground to make a small hole, put a seedling in the hoe, then step on the divot with your other foot – all in one fluid motion; 50-75 men heading up a hill in a line all doing this same dance, the seedlings replenished when their sacks were empty.  They were told the trees would be ready to harvest in about 80 years, right about now in fact.

That was the mindset of that time:  We’re putting men to work now, creating something that our generation will not benefit from, and maybe not even our children but their children.  It’s good for us and it’s good for the country.

How far we’ve gone off course from that kind of mentality.  If it doesn’t work right now, today, then we shouldn’t do it.

The truth, of course, is that short-term fixes rarely work now or tomorrow.  Why do we keep trying them?

As I drive around Summit County, Colorado, certainly one of the most beautiful places on god’s earth, everywhere you look you see the forest devastated by pine beetles.  In some places 3/4 of the trees are dead.

This year I see there have been some (I assume) US Forest Service crews cutting the dead trees and stacking them in large piles.  This has only been done in a very few areas easily accesible by vehicles.  On the one hand it’s kind of weird to see large acreage devoid of pine trees, with just a few firs, aspens and other non-pines.  On the other it looks like an amazing opportunity to do just what our grandfathers did when they put people to work in the 1930’s.

We need a new CCC.  There are many thousands of men and women ready to build this country back up again.  Let’s put them to work.  One project, of a grand scale but worth every penny, would be to cut the dead trees.  Make biofuel energy from them. Replant new trees.  It’s a multi-year project with both long and short-term benefits.

Why can’t we think big any more?

Buyer’s Remorse

Primary Obama 2012

Man, I’m so disappointed in our President. Obama has proved to be essentially a Trojan Horse – worse than a Republican because he’s given them more than they ever dreamed. What happened to the guy we voted for?  He’s gonna take your Social Security and Medicare; even W couldn’t get that done. Only answer is a primary challenge to Obama with all the vigor we expended getting him elected in 2008. What fools we were.