Second Thought: Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Let Them Eat Mandates

Legislators don’t need to look far for the causes of Texas kids’ problems.


It is one thing for one level of government to tell another level to do something. It is another not to send along the funds to carry out the orders.
Those are “unfunded mandates,” says Mickey West, the Palo Pinto County Judge who heads the Texas Association of Counties — “that tell us what to do at the local level, but don’t send the money to pay for getting the job done.”
For the states, it’s like when the federal government orders higher school standards under President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” but then doesn’t send along enough money to help kids catch up.
For the school districts, it’s when the Texas Legislature orders higher testing standards, but doesn’t provide enough money to accomplish the goals of the tests. That’s one reason State District Judge John Dietz of Austin agreed with rich and poor school districts that the state isn’t living up to its responsibility, and has ordered the legislature to put more money into public schools.
And for counties and cities, it’s when the governor and legislature push responsibility for things like healthcare more and more onto local officials, but then talk about lowering the 10 percent allowable annual rate increase for property tax valuations. “The time has come to draw a line in the sand for the taxpayer,” Gov. Rick Perry said in his State of the State address last month. “Let’s cap appraisals at three percent.”
Lots of local officials think Perry is not only pushing responsibilities on them while simultaneously seeking to limit their ability to raise the funds to deal with them. “Cities clearly are not the cause of high property taxes in Texas, because cities collect only 15 percent of the property tax revenue in our state,” said Texas Municipal League Executive Director Frank J. Sturzl in a letter to reporters. That compares to about 60 percent for schools. “Lowering the appraisal cap simply rearranges the property tax burden by giving large tax breaks to the owners of expensive, rapidly appreciating homes and shifting their tax burden to everyone else.”
One of Tarrant County’s state senators, Republican Jane Nelson, said local officials have let her know that they don’t like the appraisal cap proposal. “The county commissioners and city councilmen are adamantly opposed,” Nelson said. “At the same time, they realize there’s a problem. I just hope we can come up with some kind of solution that doesn’t antagonize them.”
Her Tarrant County colleague, Republican Kim Brimer, gave the idea even shorter shrift. “Our local officials are going berserk,” said Brimer. “We don’t have near the support for that they have in Houston. The governor is the main one pushing it. The cities and the counties have made a pretty good case for not doing that.
“I think it’s like the federal government limiting the state’s ability to raise revenue,” Brimer said. “I’m voting against it.”
All of Texas’ 254 counties except Dallas have adopted resolutions asking the legislature to face up to the unfunded mandates situation. They complain that legislators have hijacked their budgets, basically requiring them to cut programs and raise taxes to meet obligations imposed by the state.
One example is providing poor people with legal counsel in trials. The state began paying some grant money to counties in connection with the Fair Defense Act, passed in 2001, aimed at ensuring that indigents get prompt, competent legal help. But counties still collectively paid $134 million for indigent defense in fiscal 2003.
Gov. Perry has decried the poor state of Texas’ systems for protecting children and adults from abuse. While Perry is to be applauded for rising to the issue, this is the same Republican governor who boasts of meeting a $10 billion budget shortfall two years ago with cuts rather than at least some tax increases.
That pushed some of the healthcare burden off on local governments. Moreover, the state actually left on the table $104.6 million in federal Children’s Health Insurance Program money to which it was entitled — a little more than a third of the allotment earmarked for Texas — because it didn’t spend enough to bring down the full federal match.
“As a simple matter of fiscal conservatism, this does not make sense,” said U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who’s itching to run against Perry. Over the years, Texas has forfeited nearly $772 million in federal CHIP money, the Texas senator said. Some of that could have prevented situations that lead to child abuse.
As the governor and legislators investigate the causes of school, health, and abuse problems for Texas kids, a useful tool might be a mirror.
Dave McNeely, based in Austin, is a veteran journalist writing about Texas politics. He can be contacted at

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