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Texans Just Voluntarily Added $4 Billion In Debt.
Texas has one of the lowest state debt levels in the nation, with the highest possible bond rating from the major rating organizations.
But local debt in Texas is among the highest in the nation.
And in May of 2015, Texans across the state, in (intentionally?) small numbers, voted to take on nearly four billion additional bond dollars.
"Intentionally" is set apart there, because turnout in elections in May of odd-numbered years is minuscule and tends to favor special interests who can mobilize tiny but strongly-vested and self-interested cohorts of voters to the polls. That's the sinister beauty of scheduling certain kinds of elections when nobody's paying attention.
Take Travis County, in Texas (where Austin is). Turnout this month across the county was 12.33%, versus 41.38% in November of 2014, versus 71.95% in November of 2012. More indigo-liberal Travis County voters at the polls doesn't necessarily mean more fiscal responsibility, but even left-of-Lenin Austinites have voted against some massive bond proposals in higher turnout elections of recent years.
Here's a quick breakdown of last week's bond elections, from Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, with some quick graphs from me (click image for larger version):
Texas voters approved 99 new bonds and rejected 20 of them.
The total cost of the newly approved bonds across the state is $3,890,411,000.00. That's 3.9 Billion dollars. Voters did reject over a billion and a half dollars ($1,549,175,000.00, to be precise).
The median cost of an approved bond was $12,865,000.00. The median cost of a rejected bond was $22,550,000.00.
The average approved bond was $39,297,080.81, while the average rejected bond was $77,458,750.00. So, the lesson seems to be that people do indeed care somewhat about the price tag on these things. People are willing to say yes to bonds if they seem reasonable in scope, while the big ticket bonds tend to be more likely to be rejected. Indeed, just three of the rejected bonds (for roads in Montgomery County, near Houston, and for schools in El Paso and McAllen, along the Texas border) account for over a billion dollars, or 70.9%, of the entire rejected bond sum.
In my local school district, Eanes I.S.D., a bond for nearly 90 million dollars was rejected in May 2014, while a smaller bond of 53 million dollars was approved overwhelmingly just one year later.
Not all debt is bad, of course. And some Texas locales are counting on population and economic growth to make paying off these debts no big deal. But the persistent growth of local debt in Texas has fueled and will continue to fuel skyrocketing property taxes, which are not only harmful to economic growth but are perhaps the most fundamentally unfair taxes in existence, from a big-picture philosophical standpoint.
Men create government to secure life, liberty, and property, yet with property taxes far outpacing income growth or inflation and homestead exemptions not keeping pace with rising appraisals, no man truly owns his property, free and clear.
The Texas Legislature is currently locked in a property tax relief (the Senate) versus sales tax cut (the House) impasse, with business tax relief being held hostage in the middle. Whatever compromise they agree upon will almost assuredly be mediocre and watered down at this point, but perhaps some legislators are taking a longer view toward the eventual complete elimination of the franchise tax and/or some sort of real property tax reform that prevents appraisal creep from canceling out lower rates.
Perhaps we'll see some leadership over the next few weeks that delivers on at least one of the many tax relief promises made to voters in recent years. There is certainly still time for that.
And maybe we'll see further bond election reform to help voters tap the brakes just a bit on more of these massive new piles of debt we keep taking on.
Posted by Will Franklin · 18 May 2015 11:58 AM