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Not All Bonds Pass: An Analysis Of Eanes I.S.D.'s Failed Bond Proposal.
Actually, statewide, the total was more than $6 billion. And, as the Texas Public Policy Foundation noted, prior to this weekend’s bond elections, Texas’ local governments had already amassed almost $325 billion in total debt, enough red ink to soak every man, woman, and child in the Lone Star State with more than $12,000 of local debt obligation.
Across Texas over the weekend, small numbers of voters approved billions of dollars in new local debt, continuing the unfortunate trend of low state-level debt being trumped by extremely high local debt:
Of course, not all bond proposals are about schools, but school bonds and school taxes make up the vast majority of property taxes in Texas, and school-related debt is the biggest portion of local debt in the state (although cities are set to overtake school districts very soon, according to the Comptroller). For my personal property taxes, Eanes I.S.D. comprises precisely two-thirds of the bill, with the rest going to various parts of Travis County.
Over the weekend, about 4,000 Round Rock voters approved roughly 300 million dollars worth of new bond debt. In Manor, just 627 voters approved $124.9 million in new bonds. Just 6.48% of registered Manor voters participated in the bond election.
Across the state, this played out in similar form and fashion, with bonds typically winning between 60-70% of the small numbers of those who bothered to show up. In Cypress Fairbanks (Cy-Fair) I.S.D., near Houston, it took just 5,909 voters to add $1,200,000,000 in new debt. In Hays County, only 1,368 voters (with just 5.82% turnout) approved more than $59 million in new debt.
These massive bond elections, held in May, are designed to minimize turnout and maximize the likelihood of passage.
The school year is just wrapping up in May, and districts can hint to their employees that if they want to still be employees come Fall, they had better go vote in favor of the bonds.
More likely than not, people who might balk at new 8-figure, 9-figure, or even 10-figure bond indebtedness during a regularly scheduled election don't even know about these May elections, or they forget to vote, because it's on a Saturday.
What's more, often the elections themselves take place in schools, giving a sort of home court advantage to the pro-bond folks. And often, the I.S.D. is a community's largest employer, so the odds are just stacked against those who want to keep debt and spending lean.
Granted, Texas is a rapidly growing state, and in some of these districts, growth requires new schools. Cy-Fair is certainly one of these rapidly growing school districts. But in some cases, the new debt is just completely unnecessary, and even in places like Cy-Fair, the debt is usually far more than is actually necessary to keep up with population and inflation growth.
Indeed, local debt and local spending have far outpaced population growth and inflation, according to figures from the Texas Comptroller:
Which is where Wichita Falls and Eanes I.S.D. (plus Nacogdoches, Navasota, Marshall, Llano, Grady, Chapel Hill, and others) come in.
Wichita Falls is the only proposed 100-million+ dollar bond to fail in the entire state. Essentially every bit of the $6.7 billion in proposed new local debt was approved across the state on Saturday, so Wichita Falls was a major outlier.
Meanwhile, Eanes I.S.D., which is situated in Travis County right next to bond-happy Austin, also served as a bit of an outlier on these bond issues. For the second time in four years, a large school bond failed in Eanes Independent School District, widely considered one of the best-performing in the state.
As someone living in Eanes, my mailbox was bombarded by more than 20 pieces of glossy pro-bond mail and about 6 pieces of anti-bond mail. In terms of yard signs, the pro-bond folks had a roughly 3:1 advantage in my precinct, which ended up voting 60% against and 40% for the proposition. Despite being outgunned, the anti-bond team (Citizens for Academic Excellence in Eanes) made a strong enough argument to overcome both the pro-bond team's case and the apparent tendency for people to just mindlessly vote yes to anything in front of them. Fascinatingly, contrary to the rest of the state, where single-digit turnout led to bond issues passing with 2:1 or 3:2 ratios of support, Eanes I.S.D. saw 25.55% turnout in its election.
In Eanes, turnout was high, and the district was split by geography (click for larger version of map):
Essentially, the turquoise precinct (338) was slated to get a new, closer elementary school, at the expense of a perfectly good school in precinct 364, which was slated to be shuttered if the bond passed. The red dots indicate the current and proposed elementary schools (again, click map for larger version):
In terms of voter enthusiasm and participation, the turquoise precinct saw 29.4% turnout, while precinct 364 (my precinct) saw 37.4% turnout. Again, in my precinct, yard signs easily went 3:1 in favor of the new debt. And while the establishment media seemed to fixate on the anti-bond PAC's spending, the pro-bond side put vastly more mail in mailboxes, not even including the official Eanes taxpayer-funded mail "explaining" the bond (which was just an unabashed advertisement for a yes vote).
Moreover, what "no" signs there were seemed to disappear and/or meet this fate:
But the proposition lost anyway. Again. For the second time in four years. Why?
My best guess: property tax appraisals recently came in the mail, and the average homeowner in the district, with an average home value of $674,584, already owes roughly $12,000+ per year in property taxes. And good luck finding a home for as low as $675K in 78746 these days. It should be noted that the vast majority of people in Eanes bought their homes for far less than $500,000. Many are original owners or people who bought 8-15 years ago, when values were a bit more in line with the rest of Texas.
For people in Rollingwood (precinct 307), the average home is easily above a million dollars, which pushes the average tax bill closer to $20K or far more a year.
Taxed Enough Already?
Eanes voters declared just that.
Moreover, 72% of taxpayers in the district have no children in school. And the district is mostly land-locked, aging, and not adding children by the droves, unlike in districts such as Cy-Fair.
Those "cheap" assertions were based on homes that are valued lower than the average home in Eanes, and they assumed the value wouldn't get jacked up by appraisers year after year, a laughable assumption given recent experience. Moreover, the payments would have ramped up significantly in less than a decade, as the graph above demonstrates.
In a district with high property values, more people expect that their already-high taxes ought to be sufficient.
When it comes to local bond debt, people tend to vote yes, because they hear about how it's a half cent per hundred dollars here, a couple of cents per hundred dollars there, and it just sounds so negligible. In a growing district with cheap homes and lots of young kids in schools, it's almost impossible to lose one of these oddly-scheduled bond elections. The game is rigged. The deck is stacked.
As for Wichita Falls, a cheap property value region, its citizens also defeated a bond proposal soundly in a high turnout election. I have no idea why that is the case (concern about "drought" seems to be the answer people are giving), but reformers with an eye on fiscal responsibility in Texas should definitely look to both Eanes and Wichita Falls for blueprints on how to curtail the explosion of new local debt in Texas.
Regardless of whether you live in a high property value district, your default position on local bond elections should be "no." The burden of proof should always fall on those who want to pile on additional local debt and raise taxes. Local debt, and the increased tax burden that go along with it, threatens to undermine the Texas success story itself.
Members of the Texas Legislature should ignore the taxpayer-funded lobbyists swarming the Capitol on behalf of the various organizations representing city and county level governments and instead work to pass debt reform and bond reform. Such reform might include:
1. A "Truth in Bonding" ballot requirement, that might look something like this:
The ballot would include information about existing indebtedness, what the cost of the bond would really be (with interest) over time, and other relevant details such as the increased tax burden, that are often glossed over on the ballot.
2. A minimum threshold for voter participation. If turnout is below, say, 15%, or 20%, or even 25%, the bond is invalid under Texas law, even if it "passes." This would discourage the pro-debt folks from scheduling the elections on the most obscure of days, and it would require the bond proponents to actually make their case to the public in a meaningful and constructive way in order to secure a true consensus in the community for taking on hundreds of millions or more in new debt. A minimum threshold would also prevent a few thousand or even a few hundred people from determining whether taxes and debt rise for potentially hundreds of thousands of busy homeowners.
Meanwhile, conservative-minded voters and activists need to take charge on this issue. Our think-tanks and activist groups need to elevate the issue to one of utmost import, and we need to use partisan sniping like this tweet below to shame bad actors on our team who oppose debt reform at the behest of their taxpayer-funded county/city/school lobbyist masters:
By the way, contrary to Wayne Slater's snarky tweet, Greg Abbott actually made an important point about Wendy Davis' bond work and Texas' local bond debt crisis.
It's a point that Texas groups like Americans For Prosperity and others, exclusively within the conservative movement, have been making for years (sure, all too many Republicans have ignored it, but all Democrats have ignored it or actively sneered at it).
We're rapidly approaching yet another one of those "I told ya so" moments of reckoning, and it's going to hurt Texas' competitiveness if we don't do something about it soon.
As far as whether it is even possible to defeat a bond issue, Eanes Independent School District and Wichita Falls show that it is indeed possible. The facts about local bond debt show that it doesn't matter if it's possible at present to defeat new debt, smart people who are always right about everything (that's us) have to change the narrative and the very rules of engagement to make it not only possible in the future, but probable every single time.
Again, we have to change the paradigm. In the future, the default for voters on new debt should be "no," and the burden of proof should fall on the pro-debt folks to move the dial from no to yes.
UPDATE (MAY 22, 2014): You've got to read this analysis of Frisco's "rolling polling" scheme.
Posted by Will Franklin · 12 May 2014 06:57 PM