SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – The Texas Municipal League is to mount a grassroots campaign ahead of the next legislative session in opposition to both Gov. Greg Abbott’s proposed revenue cap for cities and the limited government advocacy group, Empower Texans.
At the annual summer meeting of TML’s Region 12, which represents cities in eight counties in deep South Texas, TML President Holly Gray-Moore predicted the next legislative session would be just as “ugly” for Texas municipalities as the the last one.
TML was formed in 1913 and currently has a membership of 1,157 Texas cities. Region 12 comprises cities in Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr, Willacy, Zapata, Jim Hogg, Brooks and Kennedy counties. The Region 12 President is Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen.
“I do not want to talk for long but what I want to talk about is super important,” Gray-Moore said, in her remarks at the conference. “It is the upcoming legislative session. As you guys know, our last session was pretty ugly and pretty tough and we are not anticipating it being much different, if not a little bit harder.”
In January, Gov. Abbott unveiled a plan to limit annual local governments’ property tax revenue growth to 2.5 percent. A city would not be able to go above the cap without the approval of two-thirds of voters in that city. The cap would be set on the total amount of money a local government collects on existing land and buildings, thus capturing the impact of an increase in the tax rate and an increase in appraised value.
Texans have one of the lowest state and local tax burdens in the country, according to the Tax Foundation, an independent nonprofit that researches taxes. The Tax Foundation’s most recent data comes from 2012. That year, Texans spent about 7.6 percent of their income on state and local taxes compared to a national average of 9.9 percent. That put Texas at the fifth lowest tax-to-income ratio.
At the same time Abbott was unveiling his property tax cap for cities and school districts, Gray-Moore was setting up a blue-ribbon policy committee to make recommendations on what issues TML should focus on.
“We took a really good look at what TML was doing and what our missions were. Are we still meeting the needs of our membership? Are we doing the right thing? As you guys know, our reputation is being a bill-killing organization. Did we really want to be known as a bill-killing organization?”
Gray-Moore, who is mayor pro-tem of the City of Roanoke, said there were over 6,000 bills submitted last session and over 1,800 had to do with Texas cities. “We all, collectively, decided we were okay being a bill-killing machine. That was what we were known for and that is okay because it is so important. There is so much bad legislation right now. So, we decided that was okay.”
Gray-Moore said TML also considered what to do about an old foe.
“We have this little group called Empower Texans. I know some of you guys are familiar with them. They have a lot of influence down here. We thought at TML we needed something to combat that, to address that, and to educate our folks. And so what we decided to do was put together a committee to look at how we want to address that – our answer to Empower Texans,” Gray-Moore said.
Another thing TML has agreed to do, Gray-Moore, said, is change its slogan going into the next legislative session.
“We decided that ‘Local Control’ is falling on deaf ears now. People still did not know what that meant. TML’s new push, our campaign for the legislative session will be ‘Our Homes, Our Decisions.’ I think that is huge. I think it says a lot about what we need to have happen in Texas during legislative session.”
Gray-Moore mentioned Abbott in her remarks.
“The governor keeps talking about tax relief, property tax relief, but they do not want to stop and look at school finance. Thankfully, out in North Texas, we have a county judge who stood up in front of our state legislators and told them, if they fix school finance, then we will fix our property tax issue. They did not like that very much. But, we are going to keep on their coattails and we are going to keep telling our story. As you guys know, that is the truth. If they would fix school finance, that would take care of a lot of our property tax issues.”
TML will be putting out a lot more literature to aid its grassroots campaign, its president said. She urged mayors and city commissioners in the audience to start advocating for TML’s legislative agenda.
“We are going to tell our story. What I would like you to do is go to your council and get them educated on this too. We have people on our councils who do not understand the realities of what this tax cap would mean. Go to your councils, go to your chambers of commerce, educate them. Go to education foundations, share it with them,” Gray-Moore said.
“You are going to see some social media blasts. Any opportunity you have to get in front of professional organizations and share our message, the better we are going to be. If you do not want to do it yourself, you want somebody to come in and do it, I can get you names of people who will come and do it. To come and tell our message.”
One thing mayors and city commissioners could do to highlight the folly of tax caps, Gray-Moore said, is show state legislators what would happen if Abbot’s plan was passed by the Legislature.
“As you prepare your budgets, prepare them as you normally would and then prepare one with the three percent cap, and see what that would look like, the things you would have to cut out. The other thing I would encourage you to do as mayors and council members is form a coalition and go and meet with your representatives and senators and take those budgets with you. Put them in front of them and say, if we have a three percent cap, what do we cut? Show us in our budget where we cut back. They think they know better than we do so we should have them tell us.”
Gray-Moore said TML has long been pushing its members to liaise with local state lawmakers but it rarely happens.
“We talk about this all the time. Call on your senators, call on your House representatives. But, we do not do that. This year, it is never going to be more important. Call on those folks and look them in the eye and tell them what the reality of revenue caps and the loss of all of our local control is. It is huge. I think everyone in here would agree that local government is where the rubber meets the road. No question about it. Our residents don’t see our legislators in Walmart or the grocery store, or at our kids’ football games or basketball games. We do. We are the ones who have to answer.”
Another big issue TML expects to see again this year, Gray-Moore said, is Republicans running as Democrats and vice-versa.
“That is something we are also adamantly opposed to. A pothole is not an R or a D issue. It is a city-issue. Again, ‘Our Home, Our Decisions.’ Decisions about what happens in our communities need to happen at home.”
Gray-Moore concluded her remarks by urging TML members not to wait until the next legislative session starts in January before becoming active on the group’s legislative agenda. “We will have more literature coming out. Please, please, take the time to get this information out. This is going to be so important with this upcoming session. Don’t wait until January to do it. Do it now. Call on those folks and make them see your faces. Tell your story of what is going to happen in your city and what the realities of this are.”
The Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM interviewed Gray-Moore after her remarks to learn more about TML’s opposition to Empower Texans. The group was formed in 2006. On the “About Us” page on its website, Empower Texans says: “The greatest threat to our state’s economic growth and competitiveness is the weight of government on the economy. If government and taxes are allowed to grow without restraint, the economy will contract, thereby limiting opportunities for all Texans. We seek policy outcomes that provide increasing levels of economic liberty and opportunity for all Texans by controlling the size of government. Government power and reach must be strictly limited, with elected officials held accountable by active and informed citizens.”
Asked why the opposition to Empower Texans, Gray-Moore said: “They ran a lot of candidates against really good candidates. They ran Democrats against Republican candidates and said they were Republicans, and vice-versa. They were not true about their candidates. And they ran a lot of false information. Particularly in North Texas, where I am, there were some strong candidates. They put out propaganda that looked to be authentic material but it wasn’t. It was very underhanded. It confused people. Our answer is, we need to educate people. We need to tell them the story, we need to tell them the real reality of what these tax caps will do for our cities, and educate them. People do not understand. You ask Joe Blow, do you want less taxes, of course they are going to say yes. Everyone wants lower taxes. The majority of people who pay their mortgage pay one bill. They do not know what the breakdown of that is. I think it is upon us as elected officials to educate our people to say, look, you really need to look at these tax bills to see where your money is going.”
Empower Texans has a “Rio Grande Valley Bureau Chief.” Her name is Miriam Cepeda. Asked how big Empower Texans is, Gray-Moore said: “They are huge. It is not huge in numbers, it is huge in money. They have so much money they are very influential. If you look at their members, it is not a great number. But, they have so much money and influence.”
Asked about TML’s grassroots campaign, Gray-Moore said:
“We need to educate our council members, educate our communities, taking this message to our education foundations, our chambers of commerce, our business organizations. The business organizations that were neutral last session will not be this session. The authorization for tax incentives is going to be up for sunset this year. So, they need our support. It is nice that the business community is getting on board.”
Asked why the ‘Local Control’ slogan was being retired, Gray-Moore said:
“People do not think about what that means. When you talk about people’s homes and your home, it makes it much more personal, and that is what this is all about. When you talk about capping city taxes, what does that mean to me at home? Does that mean you will not be able to have the recreation center open full-time now, because of the tax cap? Will you not provide as many police officers as you once did? What is your response time now, because you have had to reduce staff? It is going to affect you at home. Do we not mow our parks every other week? Do we not keep our baseball field open? Is our pool not open? Those are quality of life issues. Those are going to be real issues if we are capped.”
Gray-Moore added: “The next legislative session could be worse than the last one, unless we are very successful in getting out in front of this. That is why we have to go and talk to our representatives now. Make our position known now. This is a huge issue for all Texas cities.”