When it comes to state legislation, nothing is dead till the proverbial fat lady sings — and in this case, she doesn’t sing till May 27 — and then, of course, there’s still the chance of a special legislative session. Even so, this week’s failure of a proposed one-cent sales-tax hike advocated by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen underlines one truism: Neither Republicans nor Democrats stand ready to do the heavy lifting required for genuine, lasting property-tax relief.
Yes, legislation that was to work in concert with this sales-tax hike continues to percolate in the Legislature, including the half-baked notion of further capping year-to-year property-tax revenue growth for cities and counties across Texas. For anyone who actually studies his or her property-tax bill instead of just going blind berserk over the bottom line, this quite naturally qualifies as a questionable strategy. Public education — not city and county services such as police and fire protection — constitutes most of our property-tax bill.
Republican House members this week were clearly put out with Senate counterparts for lacking the courage to provide robust property-tax relief through a swap involving a sales-tax hike and what they said would be a corresponding drop in school property-tax rates. At one point, Rep. Dan Huberty, chief public education leader in the House, in tabling this legislation till next session (2021), lambasted Senate Republicans for choking after “demanding property-tax relief their entire legislative careers.” To be fair, Republican senators were likely already blistered by conservative constituents who suspected — with some justification — that any benefits from this tax swap would evaporate in a few years.
To their credit, Sens. Kirk Watson and Larry Taylor, both Baylor University alumni, cobbled together a patchwork of additional sources to ultimately provide somewhere between $5.6 billion and $6 billion in property-tax relief without the sales-tax hike and without expansion of the homestead exemption — enough that, if passed by both chambers and signed by the governor, might yield a 10-cent cut in school property-tax rates over the biennium. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt explained his reservations on social media, noting that passage of the sales-tax hike would “raise taxes on households making less than $100,000.”
Debate in both chambers suggests our lawmakers are not so much pushing meaningful, comprehensive property-tax reform but fleeting tax relief delaying or staving off powerful dynamics stemming from a variety of factors, including Texas’ lack of a state income tax — frankly, the most equitable of all taxes, love it or hate it. (Question to Texans: Which of these two would you rather have?) And there’s the issue of unfunded mandates from the state that add significant expense to local governing entities, which means they in turn impact local property taxpayers. Too, many irate property owners vent about local appraisal districts but consistently overlook state officials’ pivotal role in mandating and manipulating what appraisal districts can and must do. Alas, voters keep re-electing the same lawmakers, expecting different results. We deserve what we get.