MCALLEN, RGV – State Sen. Juan Hinojosa has likened the State Legislature’s pressure on local government to that exerted by Vladimir Putin over the people of Russia.
In a speech at a legislative report card luncheon hosted by the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Hinojosa slammed state leaders for passing the buck when it comes to funding public education.
The McAllen Democrat warned that the $2.6 billion it will cost to pay for an additional 80,000 students in public education in Texas would lead to a 13 percent rise in property taxes.
“We are now moving in the direction of having everything decided by Austin. We are having uniform laws across the State of Texas and not allowing communities to make their own decisions as to what is best for them, what services they need,” Hinojosa said.
“It reminds me of Russia and Putin. On his own he decided, oh, you know what, we are not going to have our governors elected. We are not going to have our mayors elected. I am going to appoint them. Well, here, you cannot have certain laws passed, we are going to control it out of the Capitol here in Austin, now, Moscow.”
After the speech was over, Palmhurst Mayor Ramiro J. Rodriguez, Jr., came up to a Rio Grande Guardian reporter and said: “Chuy is right. Senator Hinojosa is totally and completely correct. They (Austin) are passing everything down to the cities. Now, we will have to increase taxes on our citizens.” Rodriguez is director of Region 12 for the Texas Municipal League, which represents cities across the Lone Star State. He said TML was strongly opposed to unfunded mandates being handed down to cities by the State Legislature.
In his speech, Hinojosa focused on the impact state legislative policies would have on property taxes.
“I bet that 99 percent of you here do not know that the State has been decreasing its share of funding for public schools. Every session we decrease the amount of money we appropriate to support our public schools. In the process, we shift the cost over to the public-school system, to local communities,” Hinojosa said.
As a consequence, Hinojosa said, school districts have to raise property taxes to make up the shortfall. He then described as “insulting” a new provision in the state budget.
“We have 80,000 more students a year (in Texas). That is $2.6 billion to fund 80,000 new students a year. But, we did not put $2.6 billion in the budget. It is there, but how did we raise it?” Hinojosa said.
“If you look in Senate Bill 1, there is a rider provision that says that local property taxes will be raised by 13 percent to pay for the $2.6 billion. Do the math. The Comptroller’s Office comes and checks to make sure you are making that tax effort, that you are in that 13 percent range. It is amazing. Most people don’t know that.”
Hinojosa said state leaders and state legislators are pulling the wool over the eyes of taxpayers.
“At the state level, we come and tell you, we didn’t raise your taxes but what we are doing is pushing that cost down to the local communities. Guess what, your property taxes go up,” he said.
Hinojosa went on to claim state leaders are “starving public education.” He said the Texas House of Representatives had a “great bill” that would have increased formula funding for public schools, to the tune of $1.5 billion.
“But in the Senate, a majority of the senators added vouchers. We were going to divert money to private schools. The bill died. This is not a Democrat v. Republican issue. This is about rural schools that would have to close their doors if we started taking away money from the public-school system. There are many things that the public is not told or informed,” Hinojosa said.
Hinojosa predicted that the Legislature’s decision to micro-manage local governments would become a big issue.
“On top of us passing the costs down to local property taxpayers, now we want to tell local elected officials that were elected by you, your school board members, your city council, your county commissioners, oh, by the way, you can’t raise property taxes. If you raise that we are going to cap that for you. If you do, you will have an automatic rollback,” Hinojosa said.
“So, how do we expect to be able to pay for services that our citizens need? How do we pay our firemen, our police officers? Folks, we need to pay attention to what is going on because this impacts our everyday lives.”
Hinojosa urged voters to fight back. “Let me tell you, those of us in Austin, we are no dumber or smarter than you are. Those in Washington, D.C., are just as bad. They are no dumber or smarter than we are. So, why are we going to tell you, the school board member, how to make a decision? How are we going to tell you, the city mayor or city council member, you were elected, how to run the city? You have got to pay attention to these things, it really is a big problem.”
Hinojosa gave another example of over-reach by state leaders and lawmakers: pay raises for teachers.
“A teacher pay raise of $1,000. That sounds great, Governor, but how are we going to pay for it? Well savings by the local school districts. That’s absurd. For us as a state we give a mandate you will give teachers a pay raise of $1,000, but it is going to be paid by you all raising your property taxes. When we have $10 billion sitting there in the ‘rainy day’ fund that we could use to raise teacher pay raises. This is what happens and we have to pay attention,” Hinojosa said.
“And, quite frankly, I don’t care if you vote Democrat or Republican, just vote for the people who will represent our community. It is very important. If a lot of voters don’t listen to what they are telling you and you still vote for people who say I am going to cut your healthcare, I am going to cut your retirement, I am going to cut your public-school system funding, and you still vote for those folks, well, I am only one vote. It is very frustrating for us.”
Hinojosa gave one more example of the Legislature’s micro-management: payroll deductions.
“Right now, teachers can deduct their dues to the association from their pay check. Same thing for firefighters, same thing for police officers. Never been a problem. But, they are a problem because they are getting involved in campaigns. What is wrong with that, we are a free country. We are a democracy. If people want to participate, let them participate. Well, there is a problem with that because most of them, supposedly, vote Democrat. Yet, deductions are allowed for contributions to non-charitable donations, which is okay. You can see what is going on?”
TML district director and Palmhurst Mayor Rodriguez said he was proud of Hinojosa for speaking out against “Austin’s overreach.” Rodriguez said he wanted to ask a question of the legislative panel but there was not time for a Q&A. The other legislators at the event were state Reps. Terry Canales of Edinburg and Bobby Guerra of McAllen. Rodriguez said he would try to ask his questions at another legislative luncheon, hosted by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, July 13.
“I want to echo Senator Hinojosa’s comments. The Legislature, if they do this proposed tax rollback, and they limit it to four or five percent, every city will be impacted. We have to have a reserve for debt service. We will just pass a property tax increase every year to build up that surplus,” Rodriguez told the Rio Grande Guardian.
“Studies show that cities do not abuse their authority. What the Legislature is doing, and Senator Hinojosa is totally and completely correct, is passing everything on down to the cities. Education is the State’s problem. If they address education funding, that would take care of the problems. When they put this rollback on us, on property tax, what they are effectively doing is saying, build up our reserve. It is going to affect our police and fire protection. It is passing the cost on down to us.”
Editor’s Note: The RGV Hispanic Chamber’s Legislative Report Card Luncheon was held in a packed ballroom at the Double Tree Suites in McAllen, Texas, on July 12, 2017. Additional reporting by Apolonio Sandoval, Jr.