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Don't fall for it: Patrick's property tax 'relief' is anything but - Plan just adds to growing burden of school funding on homeowners
By Gene Terry
Jul 26, 2017
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It's one thing to say you want to solve a problem and quite another to actually do something to solve the problem. With his plan to address property taxes in the upcoming special session of the state Legislature, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick clearly misunderstands the difference.

Patrick's plan, called Senate Bill 2 in the regular legislative session, doesn't cut taxes. It offers headlines and catchy bumper sticker slogans, but no real relief. It purposely and cravenly misdirects Texans' attention to cover the real problem: a broken school finance system.

For years, the Legislature has been quietly shifting the burden of paying for schools to local property taxpayers. But this time they've really piled it on. The budget lawmakers passed bakes in a mandatory property tax increase of 13.8 percent to pay for schools over the next two years.

This tax hike hasn't made headlines perhaps because it's a bit hidden - buried a few hundred pages into the state's budget - but it's plain as day if you look closely: "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."

In recent memory, the state ponied up more than half of the cost of schools - and back in the 1950s, it was about 75 percent - but they've chipped away at that ever since. Now local property taxpayers shoulder the overwhelming majority of that burden, and the state kicks in a paltry 38 percent toward the bill.

Statewide, school enrollment is increasing by nearly 80,000 students a year. And each year, the state fails to fund its share, charging it to local property taxpayers, like you're a credit card with no limit. The county collects these taxes on behalf of the school district, and as the messenger, counties get blamed by some when school taxes go up. That's by design. The governor and lieutenant governor are looking for a scapegoat instead of solutions. They need someone else to blame, and they think voters will fall for it.

They don't think taxpayers will notice that school levies are more than 54 percent of your property taxes - and growing! They don't think you'll notice that SB 2 doesn't offer any meaningful property tax relief. They're counting on the complexity of the property tax system to fool you.

House Speaker Joe Straus wasn't fooled. He made fixing school finance a priority earlier this year. House Bill 21 simplified the complex formulas for allocating money to schools and proposed lifting $1.6 billion off of property taxpayers' backs.

The Senate rejected it. Now, instead of a lighter burden, the state budget is short $1.1 billion in school funding, a hole that they are filling with your property taxes.

But broken school finance formulas aren't the only problem with property taxes. The state actually requires the county to spend more of your money each session, too. They force mandatory tax hikes through new legislation, regulations and rules that impose additional costs on the county, but they almost never send any funding to accomplish the new mandates. They let property taxpayers pick up that bill.

Counties' hands are tied, and the Legislature is holding the rope. When lawmakers pass bills like this, county officials have no choice but to comply. Legislators can insist they didn't raise your property taxes, but it's an artful dodge. Each new unfunded mandate pushes hidden property tax hikes down on you.

The Texas House acted decisively this year to end this practice and bring accountability back to the process. Lawmakers in that chamber passed HJR 73, which would have held future Legislatures accountable for their new mandatory programs, requiring them to find a funding source other than local property taxes. HJR 73 would have enshrined these property taxpayer protections in the state Constitution.

But Patrick rejected more accountability, leaving HJR 73 and property taxpayer protection to die in the Senate.

The House showed leadership on property tax reform in the regular session. Lawmakers showed leadership on school finance, and on limiting the growth of government with HJR 73. The House can and must show leadership again during the special session.

Fixing school finance and ending mandated local tax increases: now that's real property tax reform and relief. Tell your legislators you're not fooled by the governor or lieutenant governor, and that your property taxes are not their credit card. 

Gene Terry is executive director of the Texas Association of Counties (@TexasCounties) and a former Marion County judge.