Last Saturday (7/22) the latest round in the battle of property tax seizer versus taxpayer played out in Austin. Two of the four bills heard in the Senate Select Committee on Government Reform—SB 1 and SB 96—transfer power from Caesars to citizens. But why is this a battle worth fighting, and what lies ahead?
The Property Tax Dance
For years the Caesars in Texas—cities, school districts, counties, and municipal (MUD) and special (SUD) utility districts—have successfully convinced taxpayers that the county tax appraisal office is responsible for their escalating property tax bills. After all, if the appraisal office had not valued your property 10% more than last year, your tax bill would not have gone up 10%. Hence, year after year homeowners protest the appraisal value, sometimes successfully gaining a reduction, thereby reducing their tax liability.
Yet, for each of the taxing entities (the “Caesars”) your tax liability has two factors: home valuation and tax rate. Ultimately, your tax bill is dictated by the Caesars. For example, if your city is satisfied with seizing the same amount of money from you this year as last year and your home appreciated 10%, they can lower your tax rate 10%. But, they don’t. And rarely does the school district, county, MUD or SUD. This was the primary reason Sen. Paul Bettencourt introduced SB 1 and its predecessor in the general session.
Senate Bill 1, the “Texas Property Tax Reform and Relief Act of 2017,” and its cousin SB 96, empower citizens by forcing Caesars to ask permission to take more than 4% more money than last year. Using the example above, if your home appreciates 10% this year and your city does not reduce their tax rate by at least 6%, they must put the tax rate proposal on the ballot. Under current law, if a taxing entity wants to seize more than 8% of your money than last year, you and your fellow residents may petition to put the question to a ballot. Yet, those petition requirements are onerous and rarely met. So, who is supporting these bills and who is opposing them?
When Gov. Greg Abbott called this special session, he prioritized property tax reform at the request of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Sen. Bettencourt introduced SB 1 on July 18, co-authored by Senators Van Taylor, Creighton and Hancock. Lt. Gov. Patrick referred the bill to the Senate Select Committee on Government Reform. When Bettencourt, Taylor and their committee colleagues asked constituents to make the trek to Austin to testify in support of the bill, they showed up in droves, including this writer. A few also arrived to testify against the bills.
A number of city, county and school officials, city public safety employees, and lobbying groups like the Texas Municipal League testified against the bills. Witnessing their adamant confidence in their residents to “do the right thing” while denying them the right to prevent a tax hike was theater at its best. Several times Sen. Van Taylor complimented a Caesar on their performance, tongue in cheek. But did the Caesars win?
Late in the evening after the public testimony concluded, the committee reported SB 1 favorably without any amendments and referred it to the full Senate. Last Monday (7/24), after many attempts to amend the bill, the Senate passed SB 1 by a vote of 19 to 12, almost along party lines. (Republican Senator Kel Seliger joined 11 Democrats in opposition.) Now the battle moves to the House where Speaker Joe Straus aims to prevent any meaningful property tax reform.
Fellow Texan, urge your state representative to give you permission to prevent your Caesars from taking your money without your permission by passing SB 1. Your sacred right to your property depends upon it.