Texans deserve the truth about property taxes

Photo by Matt Johnson

Texans deserve a tax refund — and the truth.

Those in control of the Capitol make a lot of noise about rising property taxes.

But while they rail against those taxes, they also quietly take advantage of them.

In 2013, state budget-writers banked on nearly $3 billion from local school property taxes to cover a portion of Texas’ obligation to schoolchildren. That amounted to 45 percent of the additional so-called “state” funding in the 2014-15 budget used to pay for new students, instructional materials and the restoration of some of the state budget cuts made in 2011.

It doesn’t matter if your district is considered property-rich or property-poor — the state takes from all of you if your property values are rising. This isn’t Robin Hood, though the state taps billions in property taxes for that purpose, too.

State officials scoop up school property taxes then deflect the blame for higher taxes onto cities and counties. They righteously call for tax reform, offering holier-than-thou proposals that seek to tie the hands of locally elected officials by limiting their ability to raise tax rates each year.

Members of city councils and commissioners courts are elected to make decisions about local needs and local property taxes. It’s their job. For all the dogmatic talk of some in the Texas Capitol, the state doesn't actually collect property taxes. 

What makes folks inside the Capitol think they know better than the elected officials chosen to decide a city’s or county’s taxes? Those local officials are elected just like we are. To demonize them implies that we know better than they do, and substituting the judgment of the central government is arrogant and undemocratic.

We as state lawmakers should stop pointing fingers, be honest about our role in the property tax problem and then do something about it.

There’s a relatively easy way the state can reduce the property tax bill for every homeowner: Raise the mandatory homestead exemption for school property taxes.

Today’s $15,000 school homestead exemption was enacted almost two decades ago, in 1997, when the average appraised value of a home in Texas was about $66,000. Since then, as the statewide average home value has more than doubled, the exemption has lost much of its purchasing power.

Bumping that exemption to $25,000 would lower the tax bill for a homeowner in the Austin school district by $120, which would have cut in half this year’s increase on an average-value home. By linking the exemption to inflation, we can ensure that it keeps its value.

It would — and should — be the state’s responsibility to make up the lost revenue for school districts. The cost would be an estimated $1.3 billion for the two-year budget. That’s real money, but not as much as the $2 billion or more from increased local property taxes that our state budget-writers are already counting in order to make the 2016-17 state budget work.

The Texas Constitution places the responsibility for a system of free public schools on the Legislature. The Legislature meets its obligation, in large part, on the backs of local property taxpayers.

It’s time for us to give taxpayers an honest accounting and a real tax break.

Kirk Watson

State senator, D-Austin