Pa­trick’s prop­erty tax ‘re­lief ’ masks prob­lem

Plan just adds to grow­ing bur­den of school fund­ing on home­own­ers

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Gene Terry

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

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