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Analysis: Property tax relief — but not for all Texas taxpayers

                    By Ross Ramsey

                    March 27, 2019

 Cutting taxes is expensive.

And there are not many viable options for state leaders hoping to reduce Texans’ property tax bills. Raising sales taxes to cut property taxes ­— an approach proposed by the public education chairmen in the House and Senate — ­­isn’t the only way to get there.

You can always increase the size of homestead exemptions, giving homeowners a path to lower taxes without giving the benefit of that tax loophole to renters or to business property owners — one option the Texas Senate is working on.

But it looks like a dinky tax cut.

This one would add $10,000 to the state’s mandatory homestead exemption — meaning a total of $35,000 would be deducted from the value of your home for taxable purposes instead of the current $25,000.

That works out to be a tax reduction of just about $230 per year, given the state comptroller’s estimated average property tax rates for school districts, cities and counties in Texas. That’s under $20 a month; it’s not nothing, but it’s not the kind of property tax break some voters have demanded.

They’d get the money by diverting some of the oil and gas severance taxes that now go into the economic stabilization fund — the fancy-pants name for the state’s savings account. That diversion, over the first two years, would total $1.49 billion, according to the fiscal note on Senate Bill 5.

Even if you think it’s good policy to divert rainy day money that’s generated from a tax on business to give a minimal tax break to homeowners, it’s a questionable political move.

The recipients might never even spot the windfall, spread over a year’s mortgage escrow payments and maybe consumed quickly by tax increases and rising property values. It could anger some, particularly if lawmakers leave Austin crowing about tax cuts, creating expectations that taxpayers are in for something really good.

This is the problem with property tax relief. It’s expensive.

This particular plan is not only smaller than some others, but it has a smaller impact on a much smaller group of property owners.

Another idea, floated in the House by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and in the Senate by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would cut school property tax rates by about 20 cents, which would cut the taxes on $250,000 in taxable property by $500. That’s great, but it would cost around $5 billion, and the money would come from a one-penny increase in the state’s already high sales tax.

When it comes time to vote in 2020, the danger of a big tax swap is that taxpayers won’t remember the property tax that was cut but will remember the sales tax that went up. The danger in the homestead exemption is that it’s small; that it ignores renters, commercial and industrial property taxpayers; and that it redirects money that now goes into the state’s savings — even as lawmakers are using that account to cover costs from Hurricane Harvey, catch up on teacher pensions and handle other one-time “emergency” expenses.

Business groups want an across-the-board tax cut, if there is a tax cut. Some are also pushing an idea — “compression” — that’s in the House’s school finance package and was also in the report from the governor’s commission on school finance. It doesn’t cut taxes, but it adjusts school finance formulas so that increases in property value benefit local school districts instead of the state’s budget. Right now, when property values increase faster than enrollment, state funding drops. If those value increases were used to “compress” or lower tax rates, with the state making up the lost funding, it would lessen pressure to raise local property taxes.

“Property taxes are still too damn high,” said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which represents businesses on fiscal policy. “But at least they wouldn’t be getting higher as fast.”

So far, limits on property tax increases have dominated lawmakers’ attention more than cuts. A Senate committee approved a bill that would require voter approval of property tax revenue increases of more than 2.5 percent, but that’s languishing on the Senate calendar, for now, for lack of support. A House committee could act as early as today on a related bill.

But note the caveat above: “It doesn’t cut taxes.”

Limiting future increases might help make future property tax increases less onerous, but a lot of Texas lawmakers are scratching around for ways to give taxpayers a noticeable cut in the price of government. They’ve proposed other ideas, like raising sales taxes on gasoline — on top of the gas tax already in place — to letting local voters swap out property taxes for local sales tax increases. Some proposals get more attention than others, but it would be a leap to say anything has really caught on. And there is significant support in the Legislature for using any available money not for tax cuts but for public education.

It’s hard to sort out, Craymer acknowledges. “Some people call it crazy,” he said. “I call it March.”


                    "Analysis: Property tax relief — but not for all Texas taxpayers" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Analysis: In step with Texas voters on some things, and out of step on some others

                    By Ross Ramsey

                    March 8, 2019

It’s clear that Texas leaders have either been looking at polls or have some other way to get a good sense of what their voters want.

On lots of issues — school finance, property taxes and teacher pay raises — they’re in sync with the people of Texas. It’s there in the details of the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, which serves on many issues as a demonstration of representative lawmakers actually representing the residents of the state.

But not all of them. On some issues — like “red flag” laws, vaccinations and sick leave — voters are going one way and the Texas Legislature seems to be going another.

For instance, without the aid of a list of things lawmakers are working on, voters put immigration and border security atop their ranking of most important problems. Education was second, though, and property taxes were third.

So the UT/TT Poll had another question, asking voters to rank six items that were actually on the Legislature’s list of things to do. Immigration and border security isn’t one of those; lawmakers have $800 million in the budget for border security and passed a strict “sanctuary cities” ban in 2017. The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker have different plates on the menu this time, topped by school finance, property taxes and teacher pay raises.

That matches the voters’ order of business: 23 percent picked property taxes, 21 percent picked public school funding and 13 percent chose teacher pay. All told, 54 percent of voters had one of those three items in their top spot.

They matched up pretty well with lawmakers when asked about the three biggest problems in public education, too: Low teacher pay, “not enough funding for the public school system as a whole,” and “unequal resources among schools and school districts” were the top choices, overall.

They even agree on some things they can all hate together. Ask a Texas lawmaker whether a personal income tax is a good idea, and you might get laughed at. Voters might do the same thing: 71 percent said the state should not consider creation of an income tax if money is needed to raise money for schools. They’d much rather — this is a true story — legalize pot and tax it. A solid 60 percent said so.

And although local governments think it’s a terrible idea, voters like the idea of requiring voter approval before local property tax revenue can grow more than a set amount, voters are with state leaders on that proposition. Not only do 72 percent like it, it’s popular with Republicans (84 percent), Democrats (62 percent) and independents (66 percent).

It’s fair to say that those voters aren’t necessarily clear on what that means, though — 52 percent believe that the slow-growth legislation would actually cut their current property taxes. It won’t, at least in its current form.

But it’s not all peace and harmony between the elected and those who elected them.

Red flag laws — where courts have the power to take guns away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others — are more popular with Texas voters than with state leaders. After shootings last year at Santa Fe High School and Sutherland Springs Baptist, Gov. Greg Abbott held a series of roundtables to talk about how the state should respond to and to try to prevent future shootings. They talked about everything from mental health to armed educators to stricter gun laws to metal detectors at schools.

Red flag laws were part of the discussion, too, but there’s no evident consensus of state leaders to pass them. There might be if the state’s voters were in charge, however: 72 percent would support giving judges that power, including 88 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of independents.

Sometimes, it pays to pay attention to minority viewpoints. Take vaccinations: 78 percent of Texans believe government should require parents to vaccinate their kids against diseases like measles and mumps and whooping cough. That majority includes majorities of each subgroup. But the minority votes are big enough to raise an eyebrow: 14 percent of all voters — including 6 percent of Democrats, 18 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of independents — don’t think vaccines should be required. Some of those people are represented in the Legislature, too.

Several Texas cities have passed local laws requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave to their employees. Texas leaders have said they want to strike down those requirements. And on this one, they can say they don’t care what the polls say. Here’s what the polls say: 71 percent of voters think paid sick leave should be required, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Maybe they didn’t take a poll on that one.


                    "Analysis: In step with Texas voters on some things, and out of step on some others" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


In the Texas House, property tax legislation is being handled with a different speed — and tone

                  By Shannon Najmabadi

                  February 28, 2019


                  City mayors extended an olive branch. Witnesses spoke uninterrupted. A House Democrat said he appreciated the “frame and tone” set by a GOP chair.

When the Legislature’s priority property tax reform bill was rolled out by a House committee Wednesday, it was met with a tenor and pace that differed markedly from the more contentious proceedings in the Senate.

Absent the quick tempo and heated exchanges that marked the upper chamber’s committee hearings on the legislation, a panel of state representatives deliberated its bill for nearly 12 hours, taking expert and public comments without proposing amendments. The proceedings were the latest sign of the lower chamber’s approach to the priority property tax package — which the chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee said they would “fully understand before we get into the debate and discussion.”

That, he said, “is how we have discussions in the Texas House.”

During the Senate committee’s proceedings, public testimony was largely limited to two minutes — a strategy designed to allow everyone who wished to testify the opportunity to do so, according to the office of state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, chair of the committee.

As the Ways and Means Committee meeting wore on Wednesday, some witnesses complained that homeowners hadn’t been called until well into the evening and that many had departed before their turn came.

But the thorough approach was set early in the day by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, the committee chair who began proceedings on the reform bill by saying he hoped the 11-member panel would hear comments and “talk about ideas that can make the bill better in either direction.”

After, “the committee can collaborate and can work and try to come up with a bill that is right,” he said. “[We’re] not just trying to get something across the finish line as quick as we can.”

The Senate tax committee passed its version of the property tax reform bill, with amendments, earlier this month. It has not yet been debated by the full upper chamber. As drafted, both versions of the legislation would require that cities, counties and special taxing districts receive voter approval before increasing property tax revenues 2.5 percent more than the previous year. Revenue from new developments would not count toward the 2.5 percent threshold.

Burrows seemed open to other rates Wednesday, but he explained why he filed the bill at 2.5 percent. An election trigger could be tied to a price or wage index — or based on “simple math,” Burrows said.

“If property taxes continue to go up year after year at 8 percent, they will double in nine years,” he said. “At 4 percent, it takes now 17 years to double, and 35 years to quadruple. And at 2.5 percent, it takes 28 years for somebody's property taxes to double, and 56 years for them to quadruple.”

Currently, voters can petition to have an election if revenue growth surpasses 8 percent, a figure supporters of the legislation say was set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s.

The reforms are a big-ticket item for state leaders. Though they are unlikely to reduce individual tax bills — a concern for residents who say their incomes have not kept pace with rising property values — they could tamp down the rate of a jurisdiction's property tax revenue growth.

The legislation also proposes a battery of modifications to how properties are appraised, with an aim of making the process more transparent and less subjective.

Still, as Burrows noted Wednesday, the 2.5 percent election trigger has “captured most of the headlines,” and several witnesses were asked Wednesday to help identify a more palatable number.

“Do you think 8 percent is where it ought to be, or do you think it should be lower?” Burrows asked Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson.

“I think we’re engaging in that conversation with you guys,” she responded, listing a number of factors she thought should be taken into account.

Two dozen big-city mayors proposed using a formula to tailor the trigger to each jurisdiction, in a letter to the committee chair dated Feb. 26. Six mayors testified on behalf of the group, stressing they were remarking “on” the bill — a neutral position — not against it.

Bettencourt noted a new attitude coming from mayors Thursday.

“The Mayors came in with solutions this time because they just said NO last time," he said. "That’s progress."

Despite the generally placid tone Wednesday, the hearing exposed some of the party-line fissures that have animated the property tax reform effort so far. Mayors were questioned by GOP lawmakers about why having an election trigger would force them to cut their budgets. Municipal leaders said population growth and unfunded mandates were tying their hands. And many homeowners, who supported a trigger at 2.5 percent, spoke of their difficulty paying rising tax bills on top of other expenses.

Near 11 p.m., the Speaker of the House, Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, walked through the hearing room to greet lawmakers and watch the proceedings.

In 2017, property tax proposals left the House and Senate at an impasse during both the regular and special sessions. The lower chamber proposed that an election be triggered at 6 percent revenue growth, while the upper chamber pushed for 4 percent.

In a move Bettencourt has jokingly called a “compromise,” Gov. Greg Abbott pitched a 2.5 percent rate in advance of the 2019 session. A poll from Quinnipiac University, released this week, found voters largely supported the idea of requiring local governments to get voter approval before “increasing property taxes” more than 2.5 percent.

Still, lawmakers’ public support for the 2.5 percent threshold has appeared to wane. Republicans have cast the figure as a starting point. Prominent Democrats on the committee — state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin — have said the figure is a non-starter.

“For the number now to shift downward by a point and a half to 2.5,” Martinez Fischer said, “my natural reaction and response to that is, ‘Well, my 6 becomes 7.5.’”

And a major component of the reform package has yet to be unveiled. The bulk of property taxes statewide are levied by school districts, with state dollars flowing in after local revenue has been accounted for. The property tax reform proposal has inserted placeholder language for schools, as lawmakers’ wait on sprawling public education bills to be filed.

Martinez Fischer, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, said of the lower chamber's approach: “we don't care about getting it done first; we care about getting it done right.”

“Everybody seems to want to live this policy through the lens of 2017,” he said. “I take the mayors at their word that they're going to work hard, they're going to come up with a collective solution. I take the chairman at his word that he wants our input and is hoping to make this bill better.”


                 "In the Texas House, property tax legislation is being handled with a different speed — and tone" was first published at  The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen names committee chairs

                  By Cassandra Pollock

                  January 23, 2019

Of the five Texas House committees considered to be the most powerful, three will have new chairs this session.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond will again head the budget-planning Appropriations Committee, the House announced Wednesday. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, will retain his post as chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Two other committees — Ways and Means and State Affairs — were already guaranteed new chairmen due to departures. New House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who chaired the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in 2017, has tapped state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, to fill his shoes. Burrows also chairs the Texas House Republican Caucus. And state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, will oversee the State Affairs Committee, replacing former state Rep. Byron Cook, a Corsicana Republican who did not seek re-election. Phelan, who told The Texas Tribune after assignments were announced that his appointment to chair is “a huge honor,” will oversee a committee that will have even more jurisdiction over some of the House’s most high-profile legislation this session, thanks to a new set of rules the lower chamber passed earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the Calendars Committee will have a new chair this session. State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, will replace state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, at Calendars, leading the committee that handles the timeline and order for which bills will — and won’t — reach the entire chamber for consideration.

 “I don’t want a single member to feel apart from this House after these committee assignments are made,” Bonnen told House members before assignments were announced on the floor of the lower chamber. “I’m certain there are errors that will be found. … It’s not because we intended them to occur.”

These assignments are among the first major glimpses into who Bonnen considers top allies in the House. And now that assignments have been announced, legislation can begin to move through the lower chamber as bills are referred to committees.

In another shift, Bonnen tapped state Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, to serve as speaker pro tem, a position that Bonnen held under former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

In total, Democrats, fresh off a 12-seat pickup during the November elections, also made considerable gains with House committee assignments. Twelve Democrats were either appointed or retained chairmanships to the House’s 34 standing committees. Some of the more notable appointments happened on the Higher Education and Transportation Committees, where two Democrats — Chris Turner of Grand Prairie and Terry Canales of Edinburg — replaced Republicans J.M. Lozano of Kingsville and Geanie Morrison of Victoria as chair, respectively.

During the 2017 session under Straus, 13 Democrats held chairmanships on the lower chamber’s 38 standing committees.

Beyond partisan lines, Bonnen’s office said Wednesday that of the 34 standing committees this session, 19 chairs and 22 vice-chairs are women, black, Hispanic or Asian-American. Additionally, 15 chairs will be serving in that capacity for the first time.

A number of other chairmen also retained their posts, including state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who will again head the Public Education Committee. That committee will all but certainly play a central role in the debate over school finance — an item the Legislature has billed as a must-do issue this session. State Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio, will also continue to serve as vice-chair of the committee.

In another announcement Wednesday, state Rep. Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican who was House speaker from 2003-09, was appointed chair of the Land and Resource Management Committee. It will be Craddick's first time serving as a committee chair since the 1997 session. Craddick, who began serving in the House in 1969, is the longest-serving member in the lower chamber.

                   "Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen names committee chairs" was first published at  by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Dan Patrick announces Senate committee assignments, making a few noticeable shifts

                  By Emma Platoff

                  January 18, 2019

The shifts at the top of Senate committees, announced by the lieutenant governor Friday, were few but noticeable — with moving parts in the Republican Party making way for some senators to chief committees for the first time, a thorough snub that may deepen an existing rift and little headway for Democrats despite electoral victories in November.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named 14 Republicans and two Democrats chairs of the Senate’s 16 committees, meaning no gains for the chamber’s minority party despite an increase in the number of committees. Houston Democrat John Whitmire, the Senate’s longest-serving member, continues to chair the Criminal Justice Committee, and Eddie Lucio, a moderate Democrat of Brownsville, continues to helm the Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

All but five of the Senate’s 19 Republicans are chairmen; of the five, three are freshman and one had yielded his prominent position in the wake of an inconclusive sexual harassment investigation.

“These committee assignments reflect the proven leadership, commitment, solid work ethic and wide range of expertise of the thirty-one senators who have been elected by the people of Texas to represent them,” Patrick said in a statement. “I am confident they can make this the most productive and successful legislative session in Texas history.”

Perhaps the most notable shakeup came for state Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican who has sometimes found himself at odds with the lieutenant governor over his more moderate views. Seliger lost his longtime position as chair on the Senate Higher Education Committee and even his membership on the committee; he was also taken off the public education committee and the powerful finance committee. State Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican, will take over higher education; Seliger was named chair of the Senate’s new Agriculture Committee, a smaller committee split off from the Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs Committee.

Seliger and Patrick have had squabbles in the past, if they remained relatively low-temperature. Patrick stayed quiet on Seliger’s re-election bid, but his top political consultant — Houston-based Allen Blakemore — ran the campaign of Victor Leal, who unsuccessfully challenged Seliger in the Republican primary. And Seliger was the only Republican senator who didn’t endorse Patrick’s re-election campaign, saying he was focused on his own race.

Seliger said he looks forward to championing agricultural issues and that education legislation will remain a top priority. But the senator, who’s back in his Panhandle-area district for the long weekend, said many in the area are feeling “dismayed and disrespected.”

“It’s not what I desired,” Seliger said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “There’s a negative reaction in this district, because [the finance committee] is a good position to try and do the things that are important in an area in West Texas that seems to have to fight for everything, from a budgetary point of view.”

“I know exactly what motivated the change. It was a couple of ‘no’ votes for the lieutenant governor’s priorities in 2017,” the longtime higher education chairman said. “It was a very clear warning to the Republicans that if you get off the reservation, you better be careful.”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican and tax consultant, was named chair of the Senate’s new five-member committee on property taxes — a plum position, and little surprise, given Bettencourt’s leadership on tax proposals in the past.

“Texans have made it clear that they will not stand for anything less than meaningful property tax reform and relief this legislative session,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “The Senate Committee on Property Tax will be getting to work right away!"

Of the Senate’s six incoming freshmen, two Republicans won the highest posts: McKinney Republican Angela Paxton was named vice chair of the property tax committee, which will shepherd this session’s priority legislation; and Pat Fallon, a Prosper Republican who previously served in the House, was named vice chair of the Senate Administration Committee.

Beverly Powell, a Burleson Democrat and a longtime school board trustee, won a coveted spot on the public education committee — another subgroup that is likely to be in the spotlight this session. Sen. Larry Taylor kept his spot as chair of that committee.

Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who last session chaired the Senate Administration Committee and carried one of the lieutenant governor’s top priorities, was appointed to lead the powerful Health & Human Services Committee. The former committee chair, Georgetown Republican Charles Schwertner, gave up his position after a University of Texas at Austin Title IX investigation found that “evidence does not support a finding” that he had sent lewd texts to a graduate student.

Sen. Jane Nelson, the upper chamber’s veteran budget-writer, kept her post at the top of the Senate Finance Committee — as foreshadowed by a playful exchange on the floor earlier this week.

"If committee assignments come out, I would like to announce that — if I were chair — I would announce that Finance Committee will start working on Tuesday," Nelson told the chamber as senators adjourned on Wednesday for the long weekend.

"I think you will be there, I feel pretty confident of that, with all your work on the budget," Patrick responded. "And I think you'll be ready to go on Tuesday."

                  "Dan Patrick announces Senate committee assignments, making a few noticeable shifts" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.