Property taxes, bail and drunken driving fees--a triad of unfairness
(published as a commentary on January 7, 2018
Copyright 2018 (all rights reserved)
in the San Antonio Express-News)
When I first sat down to write this piece, my intent was to explore the need for property tax reform in Texas. Thoughts on this subject had crept into my mind in the past, and they surfaced after reading several news items appearing in the Austin-American Statesman a few weeks ago.
Austin officials have long recognized that housing affordability for the city’s residents is a mounting problem. The articles in the Statesman addressed the continuing rise in property taxes, forcing many homeowners to move to outlying areas where home values and resulting taxes aren’t as steep.
Property taxes stand out as only one of a couple of legislative items that smack of unfairness in Texas. Let’s start there.
What’s happening in Austin is occurring elsewhere in Texas, and the greater San Antonio area is no exception. In fact, tax burdens on citizens throughout the United States, whether property owners or not, are a recurring problem with no sign of relief.
My initial intent was to suggest that our legislature should consider other revenue options. Texas is one of seven states that don’t assess an income tax, for example. Most states collect their revenue, for the most part, from both property and income taxes. If Texas implemented an income tax, the additional revenue would allow a significant reduction in our property tax.
My proposal isn’t just a matter of substituting one tax for another. An income tax, working together with a much-decreased property tax, would lessen the burden on our taxpayers.
The issue of which kind of tax is better for the state or the taxpayer has been the subject of considerable debate. But there’s one aspect on which the tax experts agree―states with no income tax tend to place a disproportionately high tax burden on the poor. In fact, an income tax is fairer not only to the poor but to most of those considered middle class, who also struggle to make ends meet.
As I delved further into the comparisons, I chose to focus on the broader issue―the overall fairness in legislative enactments that create revenue and require funding from our residents.
So I’ve included here the unfairness of two other state assessments: the surcharges collected by the Department of Public Safety under our state’s Transportation Code and the state’s bail bond requirements.
We ca’t reasonably question the need to set bail in criminal proceedings or the need for property taxes and other taxes and fees. We must, however, question their fairness.
Last year, I wrote a commentary for the Express-News critical of the onerous Driver Responsibility Program, under which the Texas Department of Public Safety enforces the collection of surcharges assessed against criminal defendants convicted of drunken driving and driving without insurance or a valid license.
I questioned not only the need for the program altogether but also the high assessments under it. Individuals get enmeshed in a vicious cycle of debt and poverty from which they can’t escape.
Fortunately, a few legislators recognize the inequities of the program, one of them referring to it as “hated” and “pretty much universally despised.” People “get into a spiral”, losing their jobs and sometimes their families.
Bills to lessen the assessments or do away with the program have been unsuccessfully introduced during the past few years. In blocking the bills, most legislators don’t have the foresight to see how the program is hurting not only the poor but the middle class, many of them university students who can ill afford the surcharges.
In the past, I’ve also criticized Texas’ bail bond requirements as unfair to our jail inmates awaiting trial and costly to taxpayers. To make bail, most inmates have to borrow from friends or family to pay a bonding company. Those who can’t make bond stay in jail and risk losing their job as a result. Most have families, who, too, will suffer and may turn to public assistance, costing taxpayer money.
The bail requirements are archaic and unnecessary to guarantee the appearance of a majority of defendants. Less costly options are available. Recognizance bonds, for example, under which defendants agree to appear in court, should be more widely permitted. Courts can issue bench warrants for the arrest of those who fail to appear.
The risk of reincarceration and the loss of their jobs as a result are all defendants require to assure their appearance. There is no need to bleed every last drop of their savings and earnings from them.
Reflecting on these three sources of revenue―property taxes, the DPS surcharges, and the bail bond costs―it’s apparent that our state’s executive and legislative branches, in enacting and enforcing our laws, have failed to safeguard not only the poor but the average citizen and a significant part of Texas’ middle class.
Causing citizens to leave their homes and neighborhoods due to lack of affordability isn’t fair. Causing hard workers to lose their jobs because they can’t afford to pay the exorbitant surcharges assessed by DPS isn’t fair. Causing criminal defendants, gainfully employed, to lose their jobs and possibly their families because they can’t afford to make bail isn’t fair.
In passing bills and signing them into law, our legislators and governor should ask themselves an important question: Is this law fair? If not, how can we make it so?
For far too long, we’ve given much lip service to the importance of assuring that this country’s laws protect the middle class and our poor.
Yet, Congress just passed the largest tax bill in the last 30 years. Not surprisingly, it decreases considerably the tax rates for the rich and big business, while the middle class and poor receive much less benefits.
Back home, unless we hold our state officials accountable, they, too, will continue to treat average Texans and the poor unfairly. They instead should make it their priority to pass laws to protect those individuals.
I’ve provided three examples where they’ve failed to do just that.
Without change, the rich will continue to get richer and the poor poorer, the gap between them growing further apart. And caught in between, the middle class will keep struggling.