Since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014, Greg Abbott has made bold promises on property tax reform and relief. He, and almost every other Texas Republican over the past quarter century, has come up short on actually delivering on them.
Without bold action, this session will go down in history as a failure. A point the surging blue wave of Democrats will be more than happy to make in 2020, with a ready-to-launch plan to “fix” things.
In his inaugural address this January, Abbott said, “I’ve talked to Texans from Amarillo to Laredo, Texans in suburbs and inner cities, and they all demand property tax relief.”
But so far, their demands haven’t been answered.
Since his inauguration, Abbott has been mum on the topic. In his “State of the State” address, the term “property tax relief” was never uttered. Not once. In its stead was “property tax reform.”
To Abbott’s credit the plan he, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen unveiled in that regard is a good one. Lowering the amount by which local officials can raise tax rates without voter approval, reforming the appraisal process, and other reforms he’s proposed are sorely overdue and passing them would be a major accomplishment.
While Texans should be proud of State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) for passing a strong property tax bill out of his committee earlier this week, the reform plan won’t actually reduce anyone’s tax bill—it will only prevent the problem from getting worse faster.
Taxpayers are excited about the proposed reforms, but they’re also outraged they still aren’t seeing plans of a relief package.
All across Texas, citizens are asking, “Where’s the relief?”
Abbott and other lawmakers have said property tax relief is coming for ages, but so far it has yet to come—leading many to doubt that relief will come at all.
Indeed, the only thing Texans have heard from their lawmakers in six months is this deflection: “You can’t talk about property tax relief without school finance.”
Maybe not. But unfortunately, Texans have learned the inverse isn’t true. You can, in fact, talk about school finance without mentioning property tax relief. Abbott and other Texas lawmakers have also been doing that for six months.
There’s been plenty of proposals to pay teachers more, spend more on schools, and provide additional state tax dollars for public education. What there hasn’t been is a single sentence uttered by Abbott on how he intends to lessen the existing strain on taxpayers—those Texans who he admits are demanding property tax relief, who are “taxed enough already” to pay for those programs and policies.
It’s not as though legislators are facing a tough budget year. Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s revenue forecast shows the state is projected to pull in large amounts of tax revenue in the coming biennium. That’s more than enough to begin abolishing Robin Hood by “buying down” the school maintenance and operations property tax with state tax dollars.
Such a change would steer more state dollars to public education while reducing local tax bills, a change that would silence those who claim the state doesn’t “pay its fair share.” With almost all state tax accounts swelling with resources, lawmakers aren’t lacking on options.
What they appear to be lacking is will to prioritize such tax relief over pet projects and grow-government spending sprees. The governor is signaling property tax relief isn’t an issue, while pushing for big infusions of cash for items no Texas voter asked for, issues like gang enforcement, corporate handouts, and mental health programs.
For a year, while campaigning, Texans heard a lot about the need for tax relief. As the first quarter of the legislative session concludes, relief has been replaced with spending.
The positive news is that there is plenty of time left for lawmakers to tackle this problem. And there will be plenty of opportunity for every lawmaker to take a crack at actually providing real relief and reducing property tax burdens.
But they shouldn’t underestimate the urgency or the gravity of doing so. Last November showed that Democrats are on the march in Texas, trying to build on the results of the Beto O’Rourke campaign and make plans to take the state in the 2020 election.
Texas Democrats are more than ready to remake their long-held desire to impose a state income tax as a pitch to reduce property tax burdens. And after two and a half decades of Republican failure to delivery on relief, Texans might be tempted to give it a go.
If Republicans want to be taken seriously as tax reformers, they must also deliver meaningful tax relief. Without property tax relief that voters can personally see around the kitchen table, the GOP is merely adding to the public perception of big talk and little action.
In the words of one conservative activist, “Talk is cheap, property taxes are expensive.”
Unless Abbott wants to preside over a Democrat majority in the legislature and face being the last Republican governor, he must now produce the bold results he and his fellow Republicans promised.