With the passing of the 2018 campaign cycle, property taxes remain at the top of the list of issues important to Texans — especially in high-growth areas of the state. Property tax reform and relief have been consistent themes in Texas politics in recent years, but a few things surrounding the topics have changed dramatically.
First, even Democrats have started including property tax relief in their campaign rhetoric, a marked transition last year from the positions of many liberal candidates for the state legislature in 2014 and 2016 cycles, when Republicans for those same seats made it a principle element in both the GOP primary and general election.
In Texas, Democrat candidates for office at the state level often make a concerted effort to run towards the center, as opposed to further left with their colleagues on the national political scene. In doing so, many include discussions of property tax reform in their platforms in hopes of enticing moderate Republicans and independents. Democratic inclusion of property tax reform was frequently coupled with calls for a complete overhaul of the state’s school finance system. Each issue was passed over this past session, resulting in many legislators across the political spectrum promising to address both in the next meeting of the legislature.
Secondly, Abbott’s transition from watchful eye to political participant before the start of session stands out. Even before taking to Twitter last week to spotlight adversaries on property taxes, Abbott utilized nearly half of his $40 million campaign war chest to chase down opponents of his agenda in the Republican primaries and defend Republican incumbents against Democrats in the general election. This was a distinctly different approach to the legislature compared to his first two sessions as governor, and it had mixed results.
Abbott’s endorsed incumbents largely won their re-election campaigns in the primary, but he had a harder time unseating those he went against — with only one of three resulting in victory (conservative small businessman Mayes Middleton over State Rep. Wayne Faircloth of Galveston).
In the general election, Abbott was more active, crisscrossing the state to boost a beleaguered Republican ticket. Abbott’s efforts there are to be commended and likely led to the victories of several Republicans in close races; but at the end of the day, Republicans are coming back to Austin fewer in number than before.
Indeed, Abbott and other conservatives lost key allies on issues such as property tax relief. The loss of iron-chinned conservative State Sens. Konni Burton (Colleyville) and Don Huffines (Dallas) are tough pills to swallow. They would no doubt have again been allies to reining in property taxes. The underdog victory of Republican Pete Flores in the recent special election in Senate District 19 (which resulted in a Republican pickup) makes it slightly more bearable, but, according to the Fiscal Responsibility Index, Burton and Huffines had two of the strongest pro-taxpayer voting records in the Texas Senate.
Senate losses, however, pale in comparison to those shaking up the Texas House, where a dozen Republicans have been forcibly retired from their posts. The defeats impacted incumbent Republicans indiscriminately, particularly in Dallas County, with liberal, moderate, and conservative Republicans all being defeated by similar margins in a tidal wave of straight-ticket Democrat voting.
Even with incoming presumptive Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R–Angleton), thought for now to be at least a marginal improvement over retiring Speaker Joe Straus, Abbott’s losses from the top of the ticket in November have him negotiating from a position of less leverage than two years ago. With 94 Republicans in the last session, the Texas House was still a deliberative body that balked several times on property tax relief, considered by most to be a “priority issue.”
With lawmakers already anticipating a surplus of state revenue at their disposal from the recent economic upturn, Republicans may have their hands full when dealing with a Democratic Caucus emboldened by gains in both chambers.
While the governor, lieutenant governor, and others have staked out positions on property tax reform and relief, conservatives should look to one man, Paul Bettencourt, to take the lead.
The tax assessor-collector of Harris County for a decade, now-State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston) carried the primary tax reform bill in 2017 and chaired the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform. The committee traveled the state to receive public testimony from Texans on the issue, many of whom testified they were essentially being priced out of their homes due to the dramatic increases in their property tax bill each year.
Bettencourt’s bill would have prevented local governments from raising taxes by more than 4 percent annually. However, jurisdictions looking to raise taxes over that threshold could still do so with an affirmative vote of the people.
The Texas Senate passed his legislation, but the Texas House watered it down to the point of irrelevance by carving out large portions of Texas and raising the rate to 6 percent. They then refused to negotiate differences with the Senate, killing the reform and leaving Texans with no reform or relief for another two years.
When reached for comment on the status of property tax reform and relief, with consideration to the outcome of state-level elections in November, Bettencourt said Republican losses may play a role in the outcome.
“I know it’s something he has campaigned on,” Bettencourt said of the governor after listing several Democrats that have joined the chorus of candidates campaigning on tackling property tax reform, namely in Bexar, Dallas, and Travis counties. Bettencourt continued, “I certainly cannot speak for the governor, but I do not question the resolve of our lieutenant governor on this issue.”
He was optimistic about the upper chamber’s ability to force the topic in a manner that would afford Texans with meaningful relief and not the veil of such an accomplishment for Republicans to campaign on next cycle — even if that meant the issue came down to the wire in another special session. Should the governor call one, Bettencourt added that the numbers become even more attainable, noting “the Senate would only need 16 votes.”
Moreover, Bettencourt included that, “when people get their property tax bills at the beginning of next year, during the legislative session,” pressure will mount on legislators in both chambers to act decisively on the issue. He anticipates Texans’ bills this year will be “certainly the highest they’ve been in modern history.” The House will feel that pressure as well, perhaps strongly enough to force their hand.
“He doesn’t like Robin Hood. He cares about transparency,” Bettencourt said of the presumptive Speaker Bonnen.
Bettencourt, considered a tax policy expert among colleagues, is familiar with Robin Hood and school finance, serving on the School Finance Commission charged with releasing a recommendation to legislators on the topic before the end of the year. Bettencourt admitted that the progress of property tax reform will largely be tied to that of school finance reform, based on Bonnen’s remarks and his work in the commission.
Five times, he said, he urged his colleagues on the commission to include Abbott’s plan in their report.
Abbott first pitched his plan for legislators to chew on during the interim in January. His current proposal would lower the rollback rate to 2.5 percent, requiring increases above that threshold win the support of two-thirds of the local government’s governing body (i.e., city council or commissioners court) and then win a majority vote of the public before taking effect. His plan also would reform the property appraisal process and place a prohibition on so-called “unfunded mandates,” something conservatives warn will jeopardize reform and cripple the state’s governing process.
At the time of this article’s writing, no legislation has yet been filed in either chamber on behalf of the governor. Bettencourt, who is expected to take the lead on the issue again, did not give a timeline on when such legislation would be filed, but alluded to the School Finance Commission releasing their recommendation before anything gets rolling.
The commission, which will meet again next week, is anticipated to vote on final findings and release a subsequent report before the end of the year.
“The time is now,” Bettencourt said of getting results and meaningful relief for all Texans.
This is the second of a three-part series by Destin Sensky. You can read the rest at TexasScorecard.com.