When 'local control' means 'local funds'

Published on Saturday, 31 August 2013 22:22 - Written by

Austin has a great new idea — but it turns out to be the same old habit of sticking it to local governments and taxpayers. The Texas Department of Transportation’s new “Turn Back” program would “turn back” control of some state roadways to counties and municipalities. It’s being done under the guise of “local control,” but it’s really about local funds.

Lawmakers in Austin simply lack the political will to adequately fund their transportation commitments. So their plan is to make municipalities pick up the tab — and take the heat for raising taxes to do so.

City of Tyler officials rightly oppose the proposed plan, saying the costs could mean a penny tacked on to the tax rate.

City Manager Mark McDaniel said Wednesday that the state is expected to spend $700,000 to maintain its roads within the city limits this year.

“That doesn’t include the re-surfacing and overlay of the existing streets,” McDaniel says, adding that throughout time this work could total $30 million.

It’s ridiculous for Texas to bill itself as a haven for business and economic growth, when our leaders lack the backbone to provide adequate infrastructure. There used to be a pretty clear “line of demarcation” when traveling a state highway and hitting another state’s border. Texas roads were something to be proud of. If we don’t do something quick, we’re going to end up as a punchline for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

If state officials need a lesson in how to do infrastructure right, they need only come to Tyler. Our pay-as-you-go system, funded largely through a consumption tax (the half-cent sales tax) has enabled the city of Tyler to fix its roads and add new ones.

Former Tyler mayor and now-state Sen. Kevin Eltife proposed a real fix in the Legislature last session. His bill would have increased the fuel tax and pegged it to inflation, and implemented a half-cent sales tax increase to fund roads. But as Eltife noted in July, there’s little political courage among legislators to raise taxes or fees.

Really, this is all about politics. State lawmakers are more worried about re-election than they are about our roads. They know that if they “turn back” state roads to cities and counties, they won’t have to raise taxes to maintain the ones they’ll keep. They’ll be able to boast about not raising taxes.

But that will be a lie. By forcing cities and counties to take over maintenance of those roads, the state is undeniably forcing those entities to raise taxes to cover the new unfunded mandate.

What’s worse is the state is claiming to do so to increase local control. As we’ve learned with everything from education to water policy, when Austin says “local control,” it really means “local funding.”

Candidates for statewide office will be traveling through East Texas in coming months, seeking campaign donations and political support. The first question we should be asking them is, “how much more ‘local control’ are you going to cram down our throats when you take office?’”

Enough is enough.