A mild-mannered county official told the truth about the Texas Legislature Friday, and the resulting tremor was felt from Arlington to Austin.
During what is usually a snoreworthy annual speech to business leaders, County Judge Glen Whitley of Hurst said property taxes are high because the state pays less every year of its share for public education — and then state lawmakers blame local officials for higher taxes.
Whitley, an accountant, is in his 22nd year as a county judge or commissioner. His speeches usually involve business development or transportation, not political truth-telling.
“I warned them I was gonna go ‘unplugged’ and I did,” Whitley said later Friday.
At one point, according to attendees, state Sen. Konni Burton walked out.
Whitley said some state senators and representatives endanger our future by opposing needed local tollroad projects and useful business incentives.
In a second speech Friday night, he said bluntly that money from outside Tarrant County is “trying to buy the Legislature.”
By phone, Whitley gave a name.
“You look at the millions upon millions Tim Dunn has spent around this state,” Whitley said.
Dunn, a Midland oil executive and founder of a Christian private school, just gave another $1 million to Empower Texans. That’s the West Texas money machine behind several local Freedom Caucus lawmakers and two local conservative challengers in Texas House races.
“They go down to Austin and they vote the way one or two individuals want them to vote, and not what’s best for Tarrant County,” he said.
Whitley said he’d thought about the speech for more than a month.
In two appearances — he also addressed a leadership conference Friday night — he focused on how Tarrant County’s growth and quality of life will suffer without more highways or tollways and without business deals for the next Facebook plant, General Motors expansion or Globe Life Park.
“Local officials should be left to make local decisions — we really don’t need [lawmakers] putting us in a box,” he said.
“We tell every one of them we want local control. Then they come back and we pat them on the back and tell them what a great job they’re doing. Well, most of the local officials feel the same way I do. It’s time to stand up and make our voices known.”
He struck a nerve when he talked about local school property taxes.
In one PowerPoint slide, Whitley noted that for the last 10 years, the state’s share of local school financing has decreased by almost the same amount lawmakers deposited into their now-$10 billion “rainy day fund” piggybank.
Then came the stinger: He showed the line from the state budget where Austin lawmakers figured on a 14 percent local school property tax increase.
That’s right: Your Texas Legislature passed a budget that assumed your school tax payments will go up 14 percent.
The exact line: “Property values and the estimates of local tax collections on which they are based shall be increased by 7.04 percent for tax year 2017 and by 6.77 percent in tax year 2018.”
When he showed that line highlighted in yellow, several attendees say Burton walked out of the room. The reason is unknown.
“There was a gasp from the entire crowd,” Arlington trustee Bowie Hogg said.
“I think every business person and school person looked around like, ‘Is this real?’ ”
At one point, state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, told Whitley he didn’t have the facts right.
Whitley said he replied, “It’s right there on the screen! You can read it.”
“They passed a budget that they knew was dependent upon a 14 percent increase in your local property tax!” Whitley said later.
“And yet at the same time they point fingers at the local [governments] and say we’re out of control.”
In the second speech later Friday, Whitley took a moment to thank state Reps. Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, and Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, for supporting local control. They face Empower Texans challengers Bo French and Armin Mizani, respectively.
Whitley said he still considers himself a “good Republican.” He is unopposed in the March 6 primary and faces a Democratic opponent in the fall.
“I think there is a real silent group in the party like me, but they would rather be quiet than be belittled or attacked,” he said.
“I know more and more business people are going to get out and vote. These are people who are not at the extremes.”
Whitley said he plans to start giving the same speech this week to more suburban business groups. He won’t be adding anything.
“I think I’ve said just about enough,” he said.