Texans facing skyrocketing appraisals and local inaction are clamoring for state lawmakers to pass sweeping property tax reform. Such measures are desperately needed as property owners currently pay the sixth highest property tax rates in the nation, while homeowners pay the fourth highest property tax bills.
A bill to address the problem, Senate Bill 2 by State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston), would give local taxpayers more control over their tax bills. It passed the Texas Senate seven weeks ago. But the measure has been delayed and watered down by House lawmakers seemingly more beholden to local government officials than the taxpayers they represent.
Yet this bad revision of a good bill still needs to pass out of committee this week, so it can reach the House floor before the clock expires. There, conservatives must be prepared to fix it in order for taxpayers to view it as a win. If the bill stays in committee, it will die along with countless other pro-taxpayer priorities.
On Wednesday, Texas House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dennis Bonnen (R–Angleton) finally held a hearing on a diluted and defanged version of SB 2. While the Senate-passed version would require cities and counties to obtain voter approval for increasing tax burdens by five percent or more on existing residents, the House version scraps those provisions, substitutes a watered-down metric, and carves out some cities entirely.
To understand how this transformation happened, Texans need to understand who is petitioning lawmakers to oppose SB 2.
The most vocal opposition comes from local politicians, their tax-funded lobbyists, and the government associations that exist solely to represent government interests; such as the Texas Municipal League and the Texas Association of Counties.
Together with local officials who claim to be “conservative Republicans” they’ve formed an anti-taxpayer coalition to protect their power and avoid public scrutiny. A public vote on a tax increase is a glaring signal to taxpayers which entities are hiking their bill, and by how much. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere were among the coalition that traveled to Austin on Wednesday to stop SB 2.
Local politicians such as Price and LaRosiliere aren’t simply on the wrong side of the issue, they’re using dishonest rhetoric to fight reform. In fact, Dallas Morning News’ “watchdog” Dave Lieber wrote a scathing editorial calling their misleading rhetoric the “biggest lie of the 2017 Texas Legislature.”
For months, anti-taxpayer voices have spread propaganda claiming SB 2 would “cap local budgets”, erode “local control,” and “hurt” the ability of first responders to protect their communities.
As Lieber succinctly points out, nothing could be further from the truth.
SB 2 is not a “state-mandated” revenue cap. It simply sets a tax-increase threshold that triggers a public vote. If the law is enacted, local governments would still be able to collect 4.99 percent more revenue every single year from their existing tax base without voter approval, plus collect additional tax revenue from new properties added to the tax rolls. If governments want to raise property taxes beyond that limit, they must obtain approval from their constituents.
In other words, SB 2 was designed to give more control to local voters who pay property taxes, and impose more accountability on the local politicians who collect and spend them.
Although SB 2 has been largely transformed into a complicated and ineffective measure, the House Ways and Means Committee should pass it quickly. That’s the only way conservatives committed to delivering real property tax relief can salvage the reform: by bringing forward amendments that return strength and teeth to the legislation—like they did with the House’s watered-down sanctuary cities measure.
State lawmakers should enact reforms that empower Texas taxpayers, not local politicians. Texans deserve a record vote on real property tax reform this session, and should hold their lawmakers accountable if Republicans fail to deliver.