Commentary: Reagan Reed
Although making an inanimate concept, rather than a person, the loser of the year is somewhat unorthodox, when an idea is actually put on the ballot and voted down 70% to 30%, you pretty much have no choice but to make it the loser. The Woodlands Township board put their best spin on incorporation and voters still rejected it in a landslide. The resounding defeat of the proposition to incorporate The Woodlands made incorporation, and it’s advocates, the Texas Citizen Journal’s 2021 Montgomery County Loser of the Year.
The Texas Citizen Journal’s winners and losers of the year are determined by who used their political capital effectively and who lost it, regardless of party or ideology. It is not necessarily an endorsement or condemnation of any particular politician. Sometimes the loser could be someone we like, or the winner could be someone with whom we profoundly disagree.
I actually once supported incorporation, not as the unalloyed good it is touted as being by proponents, but as the lesser of two evils. As long as the threat of annexation by Houston loomed, incorporation, or becoming a city themselves, seemed like the only way for The Woodlands to avoid Kingwood’s fate. However, the situation changed a couple years ago when the Texas Legislature passed a bill banning forced annexation. With annexation off the table, incorporation no longer made sense. After all, incorporation is essentially just annexing yourself.
As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe that what has made The Woodlands one of the premier communities in Texas is precisely the fact that it is not a city. Cities mean higher taxes, more regulations, zoning, bureaucracy, and red tape. A township on the other hand is the very definition of limited government, and in The Woodlands, private enterprise has been allowed to flourish largely unimpeded by the heavy hand of government.
It was therefore a strange turn of events when many people who consider themselves to be the very standard of conservatism turned out to be the most vociferous advocates of the greatest expansion of big government in the history of Montgomery County. Tribalism is one heck of a drug.
Even if incorporation was a good idea, voting on it in 2021 was bad timing. For years we’ve been told that the incorporation referendum would be held during the general election when voter turnout would be highest. However, the township board instead decided to slip it through during an off year, a common trick whenever local governments want to get a tax increase passed, since government employees constitute a disproportionately large percentage of the electorate in off year elections. The excuse given was that they planned on doing it in 2020, but did it this year instead due to the pandemic, which I find pretty lame. If that were really the case, why not have the vote in 2022 or 2024? For the board to try and fly incorporation under the radar in a low turnout, off year election during an ongoing pandemic and economic recession is simply unconscionable.
Waiting a few more years would have been wiser. Despite what incorporation advocates say, there are still a lot of unknowns about the impact becoming a city would have across the community. This kind of transition on this scale has never been attempted before. More time was needed to further study and plan. Incorporation opponents made a strong case that the referendum had been rushed, and voters apparently agreed.
The idea of raising taxes on people who are already struggling in a rough economy was just not appealing. Most people who’ve had to deal with city bureaucracy wouldn’t wish it on their worst enemy. The perceived benefits of incorporation, such a greater local control and the ability to receive federal funds simply did not outweigh the many risks and drawbacks.
Incorporation failed because voters performed a cost/benefit analysis and made the right choice.
The hard right’s support for incorporation is still puzzling, and the best explanation is to chalk it up to political tribalism. Because incorporation was coming from “our guys” on the township board, many tea party activists were likely more receptive to it than they otherwise would have been. It’s understandable- overall I think that the township board has done a phenomenal job, and Chairman Gordy Bunch is one of the most exemplary public servants in the state. However, even the best elected officials are wrong from time to time, and in the case of Bunch and the board, incorporation was just one of those times.
Don’t believe me that tribalism played a significant role in the incorporation referendum? Consider the fact that during the last Conroe Independent School District bond referendum, when the district spent thousands of dollars on political mailers to “inform” voters of the “facts” about the bond (which were amazingly all positive), conservatives were absolutely outraged, and rightfully so. However, the reaction from the “grassroots” when the township board did exactly the same thing during the recent incorporation referendum? Silence. This, ladies and gentlemen, is tribalism.
Despite the township board spending over $100,000 of taxpayer’s dollars advertising the benefits of incorporation, the voters saw through it. The message from the voters couldn’t be more clear. They like the status quo.
Bunch and the rest of the board would be wise to heed the voice of the voters. They should recognize that incorporation is not going to happen any time soon, and unless things drastically change in the future, it may never happen. The voters heard the best case possible for incorporation and still said, “no thanks”, 70% to 30%. It wasn’t even close. To put incorporation on the ballot again anytime soon would most likely result in not only the proposition’s defeat again, but to the board members’ defeat when they come up for re-election.
Instead of figuring out a way to get incorporation back on the ballot, the board should focus on doing the best job possible as a township. Giving homeowners property tax relief by getting rid of the reserve fund the board has been accumulating in preparation for incorporation would be a good start. Implementing a homestead exemption would be another great idea. If the county can give taxpayers a homestead exemption, certainly The Woodlands can. Maybe the township board can be the winner of the year in 2022?
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