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Blue cities in red state of Texas vote themselves deeper into debt

By   /   November 9, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

In a state dominated by Republicans, tax-and-spend ballot propositions rolled to resounding victories in three big Texas cities Tuesday.

AP photo

ROAD TO RUIN: Fed up with traffic, Austin voters approved a $720 million transportation bond. Critics say it’s just the leading edge of larger debt obligations down the road.

Austin, a blue island in a sea of Lone Star red, predictably passed a $720 million transportation bond. The measure won with 59 percent of the vote. Residents said yes, even as the local transit system announced it was curtailing service and raising fares.

Arlington voters easily approved funding for a $1 billion baseball stadium to house the Texas Rangers. Billed as a “50-50” proposition with the team, the package includes a 10 percent admission tax and a $3 parking tax for the Rangers’ use — the same deal successfully pitched for the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium.

San Antonio Independent School District parlayed a $450 million bond package and a property tax increase, even as enrollment continues to shrink. Both measures passed with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Bob Martin, president of San Antonio’s Homeowner-Taxpayer Association, said the fix was in.

“SAISD has a large number of employees. Add their voting family members, and any tax hike can be easily passed with the support of the teachers union,” he told Watchdog.org.

James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said, “From 2004-05 to 2013-14, San Antonio ISD saw its student enrollment fall 4.9 percent. And yet, the district asked for $450 million in new debt and a maximum property tax increase. That should concern San Antonio taxpayers.”

Tuesday’s results pumped more red ink into Texas. Going into Election Day, the state carried the second-highest per-capita local debt behind New York.

Dean Wright, leader of the Austin Tea Party, said the $720 million transit bond is just for starters. “It will take another bond planned for 2018 to finish the work at $1.1 billion,” he said.

The cost to taxpayers for the first bond is estimated at $125 a year on a $250,000 house.

Transit bond proponents outspent opponents 10 to 1 promoting Proposition 1. “You get a lot of low information voters that way,” Wright noted.

Like heavily Democratic San Antonio, Austin’s high voter turnout propelled Prop. 1.

“Hillary Clinton carried Travis County by a huge margin, which guaranteed Prop. 1’s passage. Everyone in Austin drives a car and is sick of congestion. So many people are willing to do anything to fix the roads,” said Mark Pulliam, a local attorney.

Overall, Quintero said, “Texas is one of the nation’s largest conservative strongholds, but its preference for low taxes and limited government is a distinguishing feature that’s really only evident at the state level.”

“Texas’ local governments, plagued by soaring taxes, excessively high debt and pension obligations, and over-regulation, are not of the same mold. This divergence in philosophy is creating a lot problems and could lead the Lone Star State down a very difficult path,” Quintero told Watchdog.

Big cities weren’t the only ones adding debt.

Voters in Hays County, an exurban enclave between Austin and San Antonio, passed two bond measures totaling $237.8 million.

Ashley Whittenberger, an activist opposing the Hays bonds, estimated that the pro-bond PAC outspent the anti-bond effort 20 to 1. “We knew we had an uphill battle,” she told Watchdog.

“What I find shocking is the number of people who had no clue about the propositions, who didn’t know the difference between property tax rate versus actual property taxes paid, and who had no idea that Hays County will soon be over half a billion dollars in debt,” she said.

In neighboring Bastrop, voters rejected a local school bond and tax package, but residents turned back efforts to rein in local officials by defeating measures that would have lowered petition requirements for placing initiatives and referendums on the ballot.

“Voters were confused by five different measures. We didn’t have the support — volunteers, mainly — to overcome that,” said Linda Curtis, leader of Independent Texans, the nonpartisan group that put the propositions on the ballot.

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Kenricward

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Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.