The Texas House passed its version of property tax reform legislation on Tuesday; and while most onlookers were concerned with the major parts of the legislation that would offer more voter control over skyrocketing property taxes, one amendment would make it harder for citizens to fight increased tax appraisals.
It is common for homeowners in Texas, when protesting their appraisal values, to enlist the services of a property tax counselor who may be more familiar with the process and is in a position to assist taxpayers in decreasing their property tax burden.
In fact, data from the Texas Comptroller’s office indicates that over 80 percent of those that protest their property tax appraisals with their Appraisal Review Board have their valuation lowered.
But the first amendment to the property tax reform bill, offered by State Rep. Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth), places a requirement that those counselors be licensed attorneys in order to represent their clients on a contingency-fee basis.
On a practical level, this could have the effect of putting property tax counselors across the state out of business, removing a tool for many taxpayers to protest their appraisals and making such assistance only available to those wealthy enough to hire lawyers to navigate their protests.
But even with such a large effect, the amendment was quickly added without objection from a single member of the Texas House.
Many observing the legislative debate were quick to hypothesize that the amendment was an attack on State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston), the chair of the Texas Senate Property Tax Committee and author of property tax reform legislation in the Senate.
Because Bettencourt himself operates a business in which he and his employees dispute property tax appraisals on behalf of homeowners on a contingency basis, which would be made illegal by Geren’s amendment, many have suggested the amendment was added to ensure that it would not be immediately approved by the Senate but, instead, sent to a conference committee where debate over the issue could continue.
Approached by one publication for comment, Geren simply said, “I don’t believe in contingency fees, but if we have to have contingency fees to do this, then I want the lawyers to do that,” adding that he would “talk about it in conference.”
Indeed, the conference committee for the legislation, Senate Bill 2, is expected to be appointed and begin meeting this coming week.