During his annual State of Harris County Address, County Judge Ed Emmett blasted conservative state lawmakers for pushing reforms that would require voter approval for property tax hikes. Emmett was introduced by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, upon whom he lavished praise.
The event, hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership – a moderate big-business group – was ostensibly about flood control and the state of the county. But it quickly turned political, devolving into a love-fest between Emmett and Straus, with both heaping praise upon one another (and State Rep. Sarah Davis) while taking jabs at conservative state lawmakers.
Speaking of Emmett, Straus remarked, “He doesn’t pander or grandstand. He doesn’t invent controversies just to stir people up,”- perhaps alluding to Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, whom Straus has accused of doing just that.
Emmett in turn bemoaned what he described as “vicious, bigoted, and political attacks” against Straus, but said, “over and over again I hear some version of ‘thank God for Joe Straus’”.
Maintaining that federal and state officials would not allocate enough funds to the Houston area, Emmett called for a bond to fund future flood projects. “Harris County taxpayers will be asked in the not distant future to fund a specific list of flood control projects,” Emmett said. “We will have to finance that through a bond issue.”
According to Emmett, about 25 percent of the Harris County tax bill was spent on health care. He called for the state to spend more on indigent programs, and expand Medicaid under Obamacare. “That would be real property tax relief,” he said.
Emmett also celebrated the death of several property tax reform bills, which passed the Senate but were killed in the House.
“Several bills were filed during the legislative session that would require Harris County to get direct voter approval on taxes and spending”, said Emmett. “Fortunately that bill did not pass the House- Mr. Speaker, thank you.”
Emmett said that requiring voter approval on property tax increases would be, “a device for dictators and demagogues.” He then called on the Greater Houston Partnership and other business groups to work to oppose such bills in the future.
However, Emmett has been a vocal critic of the current property tax system, and does believe reform is needed:
“Our tax system is broken. County government relies almost completely on property tax revenue, but the property tax is wholly inadequate as a means of financing the unique urban government that we have.”
Emmett’s differences with Patrick revolve around the fact the judge wants the state to increase spending on local projects so the county doesn’t have to pay for them with property tax revenue.
In stark contrast, the reforms pushed by Patrick in the last session attempted to lower property taxes by empowering taxpayers, so they can be more informed about excessive tax and spending hikes, while also giving them a tool to hold local officials accountable.