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Leffingwell, Statesman, PolitiFact, Chronicle Butt Heads on Bond Spending

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

Absent major opposition to the seven proposed Austin bond initiatives up for a vote next month, supporters of their package have focused their ire on the closest thing: the editorial board of the Austin-American Statesman.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell chairs a group in favor of the $385 million package, which would fund projects including transportation, open space acquisition, parks, housing, public safety, health and human services, and cultural facilities. Today, the Statesman published an op-ed Leffingwell wrote upbraiding the paper for an editorial he said “lacks context” and “inaccurately and unfairly” characterizes the issue.

Earlier this month, the Statesman published an editorial (“Be straight with voters on $385 million bond package”) that said if the bonds don’t pass, the property tax rate could decline two cents over time. (That’s because the portion of the tax rate that would pay for the new bond spending is the portion that is currently paying off existing bond projects; when those projects are completed, theoretically, the debt could be retired.)

But the Statesman took the additional step of saying city leaders weren’t being truthful when they said the package wouldn’t raise property taxes:

Forget the nonsense coming from elected officials at City Hall, who have repeatedly told the public that issuing $385 million in bonds won't require a tax rate increase. Their arithmetic doesn't add up. If Austin voters approve the bonds, it will be new debt that must be paid for with new taxes.

That argument didn’t sit well with the mayor. In his op-ed, Leffingwell says the portion of property taxes which pays for bond projects (approximately 12 cents out of 50 cents overall for each $100 of home valuation) remains the same – hence no tax hike. “That’s because as we pay off old debt, we can issue new bonds without raising the current rate,” Leffingwell says:

It’s true that if voters reject all bonds the 12-cent rate would eventually decrease by 2 cents. Accordingly, the Statesman maintains that “not down” is the same thing as “up.” But that’s a bad word game. Constant is constant; the rate wouldn’t change. It’s also worth noting that the current 12-cent tax rate has decreased by 9 cents since 1998. So, applying the Statesman’s logic, approving all the bonds this November would actually result in a 43 percent cut to the tax rate. What a deal.

Joining the fun is PolitiFact Texas, another arm of the Statesman. Saying Leffingwell’s statement that the bond package won’t raise taxes leaves out “important details,” they rate the mayor’s statement “half-true:”

No tax-rate increase would be required. But this statement overlooks the fact that taxes paid by homeowners and others would still be going up a bit, presuming expected increases in property valuations. Also unsaid: The debt rate would decrease two cents as of 2015 if the propositions fail to pass.

This comes after PolitiFact’s caveat that Travis County, not the city, sets property values, which in turn determines one’s property tax bill.

As for PolitiFact’s ruling that property tax rates could ultimately decline should the bonds not pass, Austin Chroniclenews editor Michael King has a contrary take. In his weekly column, he writes:

“As the daily sees it, maintaining the same tax rate constitutes a tax increase – because should the bond votes fail, the rate would eventually decline. … No tax cut constitutes a tax hike? Not even Grover Norquist has tried to sell that chop-logic to his disciples.”

Confused? Well, you’ve got some time to mull it over. The last day to register to vote in this November’s election is Oct. 9. Early voting begins Oct. 22. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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