Why would they do that? I don't want to accuse anybody of perfidy here. I've gotten myself into this big Montessori mood. Let's just say it's probably developmental.

But I do need to point out that they did it again the next year. The adopted budget for 2008-2009 assumed a 2.1 percent tax increase, produced by keeping the rate flat again in a year when the base went up. At the parent-teacher conference, they would have called that, "a persistent developmental problem."

But when we look at the very next year, 2009-10, we begin to see some evidence that this isn't about cheating so much as learning differences. In that year, the base went down, but the mayor led the way for keeping the rate flat again, which produced a drop in revenue for the city of 6.18 percent.

Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway asks an important question when it comes to taxes: Do we aspire to good character as a city?
Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway asks an important question when it comes to taxes: Do we aspire to good character as a city?

I suspect the problem here is the whole voodoo of the rate itself—the belief of some politicians if they don't touch the rate, no matter what, they will be immune to bad political magic. And to hell with the practical outcome.

This year in the 2010-11 budget cycle, the additional drop in tax revenues for the city—if the rate is kept flat again—will be in the neighborhood of $40 million. In a year of already draconian budget cuts made necessary by other revenue losses, the $40 million makes a big difference. By going to slightly less than the effective rate—which is what they want to do—the majority on the council will allow the city to collect that $40 million, which they want to spend on parks and streets.

There are other important measures of how we're doing financially that never rise to the level of public debate. For example, how much money are we borrowing to make up for not raising money through direct taxes?

It's not really financially conservative, after all, or prudent, if we agree to forgo X amount of revenue in taxes but then rush right around the corner to the pay-day lenders and borrow the same money back in a bond issue. Why doesn't Mayor Leppert talk about that?

The city is required by its own policies and by state law to keep track of the amount of its debt as a percentage of the per capita annual income of the citizens. In the last six years that ratio has more than doubled, from 1.6 percent to 3.6 percent, and it's threatening to go over 4 percent.

Here's a way to look at that in Montessori terms. Think of our per capita income as a box. City debt now takes up two and a half times more space inside that box than it did six years ago.

But you never hear a word about the debt from our mayor, the former CEO of an international construction company that gets a lot of bond program work around this city. In fact, the pattern at City Hall is the same we see in the school district. The large corporate entities dominating our public discourse never saw a tax they liked or a bond program they didn't love.

Is that really the conservative position? Is it truly the responsible one? The person on the council who has been looking critically at debt in the last year has been Hunt, not Leppert.

And then there is a Montessori issue here that is even bigger than the wooden blocks. It's the question of what kind of students our leaders are. What kind of little people? What is their character? We can get called to parent-teacher conferences on that one, too.

During last week's debate, South Dallas council member Dwaine Caraway presented a slide show depicting the deplorable condition of streets and bridges in the city's southern sector. When he and I spoke by phone later in the week, he framed the city's public infrastructure challenges as a matter of fundamental justice and the kind of city we are: our collective character.

"If you would envision the scales of justice," he said, "the north outweighs the south. The south is way down and the north is way up.

"If we are really trying to be about one city, one Dallas, not north, not south, east or west, if we are trying to be about D-A-L-L-A-S, Dallas, then we must balance those scales of justice."

When you put Caraway's perspective on it together with Hunt's, it seems to me you come out with a pragmatic, centered, responsible approach to real-world challenges. We have to mind our pennies in tough times. But we can't let the house fall down around our ears. And, as Caraway says, we should aspire to a certain character as a city.

The scary thing about the T-word voodoo, both here in Dallas and nationally, is that the people practicing it do not care. They're utterly cynical about our character as a community. It's as if they think community is a dirty word. That's not conservatism. It's anarchy.

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