Republican lawmakers in the Texas House and Senate are pushing measures this week that weaken ballot transparency requirements for school bonds, making it easier for school districts to win voter approval for new property taxes to pay for new debt.
When voters approve school bonds, they also approve property taxes “sufficient, without limit as to rate or amount,” to repay the bond debt plus interest—imposing new 20- to 40-year tax burdens on local property owners.
In 2019, school finance reform legislation added a rule requiring school bond ballot propositions to include the statement, “THIS IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE.”
Over the next few election cycles, the pass rate for school bond propositions dropped to an all-time low of 61 percent.
But the ballot language is required only if the district thinks the bonds will require an increase in the district’s debt service tax rate for the first tax year following issuance of the bonds in order to pay that year’s principal and interest.
School officials regularly argue that new bond debt does not represent a property tax increase if the district doesn’t immediately increase its tax rate—disregarding how much local tax bills go up due to rising property values even if the rate stays the same, or how much more tax money homeowners pay over the life of the bonds.
District officials are also free to raise the debt service tax rate as needed, without additional voter approval.
Creighton’s bill would change the required school bond ballot language to read, “THIS AUTHORIZES THE DISTRICT TO TAKE ON ADDITIONAL DEBT,” without highlighting that the debt plus interest must be repaid by local property taxpayers.
Last year, Huckabee, Inc., an architecture firm that specializes in designing bond-financed school projects, participated in a panel discussion at the SXSW EDU education conference on how school districts can successfully promote their bond proposals.
Huckabee CEO Chris Huckabee and two school superintendents lamented the property-tax ballot language and discussed strategies for convincing voters that bonds would not cost them more tax money.
One of those superintendents was Tomball ISD’s Martha Salazar-Zamora. This year, she and her school board are advocating for lawmakers to undo the ballot transparency rule, which they claim “misleads” voters by labeling an increase in property tax burdens as a property tax increase.
The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), a taxpayer-funded lobbying group representing the interests of school officials, is promoting a broader anti-taxpayer agenda, opposing any legislation that “increases ballot language requirements, limits dates upon which elections may be held, or creates additional requirements for voter-approved tax rate elections and bond elections, such as voter turnout thresholds.”