PolitiFact Texas: Property Taxes and the Death Penality

Our weekly check-in with the Texas Truth-O-Meter.

By Alain StephensJuly 15, 2015 8:17 am

Ron Paul said one county in Texas raised property taxes by 7 percent to pay for prosecuting a death penalty case. Is that a fact?

Gardner Selby of the Austin American Statesman’s fact checking project, PolitiFact Texas is here to set things straight.

Ron Paul – he was a one-time Texas congressman and presidential hopeful whose Kentucky senator-son, Rand, is now seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nod. So, when and where did he say this?

Ron Paul made the claim in a commentary column brought to our attention by a curious reader. Paul was framing his case that it’s fiscally unwise to continue the death penalty in that each case requires a trial, a sentencing phase, and extensive appeals – all costly – upon conviction.

So, what exactly did Ron Paul say?

“Jasper County in Texas raised property taxes by 7 percent in order to pay for one death penalty case!” He put an exclamation point at the end of that.

So, of course you called him to find out what he based that statement on?

Many will recall the trials and convictions of three men after the brutal 1998 dragging death in that East Texas county of James Byrd Jr. And we searched news reports including one by NPR’s John Burnett, a KUT Austin based reporter, stating the county had to raise property taxes 8 percent to pay for the three prosecutions that were then expected to cost half a million dollars as of early 1999. We also spoke with other officials and formers including the current county auditor who looked in her files and found a document indicating the county spent more than $800,000 on six capital murder trials from 1998 to 2000.

Another official, David Luther – the area’s chief appraiser since the early 1980s – drew up a chart showing the county’s tax rate changes in those years and also the degree to which each rate that was set exceeded the rate needed simply to bring in the same amount of revenue the county raised from taxes the year before.

Wow. And so, did taxes actually escalate then?

Yes, they did.  A few months after Byrd’s death, the county increased its general tax rate nearly 12 percent from the year before. It went precisely from 31.72 cents per $100 valuation to 35.405 cents per $100 valuation. Luther told us that rate was about 7.25 percent higher than the rate that would have generated the same revenue the county gathered the year before. And, the county’s budgeted costs for the Byrd matter accounted for more than 80 percent of this difference.

That is precise. How was he able to get those sorts of figures?

A lot of math. The letter says the county budgeted about $292,000 for the trial in 1999. Luther advised that, hence, you could say taxes were increased due to the trial costs by 6.05 percent.

Alright, let’s cut to the chase. Did this Ron Paul claim withstand the Texas Truth-O-Meter?

It did. The chief appraiser showed there was nearly a 7 percent first-year increase in taxes tied to the costs of that one death penalty trial. Which makes it True.