Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley always thinks locally.
But with his vocal opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott’s proposal to take away the ability of local governments to raise property taxes, Whitley is emerging as an alternative voice for Texas Republicans.
On Wednesday, during his annual State of the County address, Whitley called for the Fort Worth business community to embrace his fight. He asked members of the Fort Worth Chamber to call their elected representatives to say they want local elected officials — not state leaders — to determine tax rates.
“For the last 10 years, there has been an effort to take local decision-making out of the hands of local officials, and I don’t think that’s right,” Whitley told attendees at the Worthington Renaissance Fort Worth hotel. “The Legislature has tried to take a broad brush and paint every city, county and independent school district with that broad brush, and we just don’t fit that way.”
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Abbott has said that, when the state Legislature convenes early next year, he will propose limiting local governments’ ability to raise property tax rates by more than 2.5 percent in a given year. Conservative groups such as Empower Texans are likely to pressure lawmakers to support that proposal.
Now in his 12th year as county judge, Whitley, a Republican, is increasingly becoming an advocate of overhauling government funding of health care and education.
He urged Tarrant County voters to approve an $800 million bond measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that would make it possible for the JPS Health Network, which is the brand name of the county’s hospital district, to expand its mental health, surgical and other services.
The hospital district, which would match the bond revenue with $300 million to $400 million in cash reserves, would build some of the new facilities near its existing campus south of downtown, but also would build several new neighborhood clinics.
Whitley said those satellite facilities are crucial to meeting the needs of the sprawling county, which now has more than 2 million residents.
“We need to position those around the entire county to allow people to get care a little closer to their home,” he said.
Whitley also called for state leaders to get serious about fixing the state’s education funding.
As for property taxes, Whitley urged business owners to tell their elected leaders “the sky is not falling,” and that reducing local governments’ ability to provide services for residents is vital to continued economic growth. He said that if Texas relied less on property taxes, it could lead to a push for a state income tax, which he opposes.
“Just remember, the alternative is a state income tax, and I don’t think anyone in this room would ever think about supporting a state income tax,” he said.