Hiding a real problem behind a bogus property tax reform

Photo by Tim Park / The Texas Tribune

I've been around the Texas Legislature for a long time, and I know a bad idea when I see one.

The Senate’s proposal to limit cities and counties from raising the funds they need to pay police officers, firefighters and paramedics is a bad idea. Senate Bill 1, as this proposal is called in this special legislative session, would also threaten local funding for health care, parks and libraries.

This so-called "property taxes bill" was a bad idea during the regular legislative session, and it's still a bad idea.

SB 1 is part of a broader scheme of some state lawmakers to override or interfere in local community choices made by county judges, mayors, city councils and local voters. When I was in the Legislature, it was my goal to make decisions that would support the folks around my West Texas district. And what's right for one part of the state isn’t always what's best for another community. My neighbors know what's best for our communities, and the state Legislature should not meddle in affairs best decided locally.

Interfering in local decision-making isn’t just bad news for homeowners; it's also bad news for businesses. A recent study found that Texas is slipping in rankings of the best places for businesses. The leadership's bathroom crusade is a part of that, and so is our underinvestment in public education and the resulting high property taxes.

Here are the facts. The real way to reduce property taxes is for the state to invest more in public education, lowering schools’ reliance on local property taxpayers. Over 54 percent of property taxes in Texas go to schools. When the state doesn’t put enough into public school funding, school districts have to make up the difference in property taxes. In 2017, the state is only funding about 42 percent of public education through the Foundation School Program.

Boosted state investment in public education would mean school districts wouldn't have to raise taxes to cover inflation, maintain or reduce class sizes or attract and retain the best teachers.

House Speaker Joe Straus, Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty and others are wisely talking about a true remodel of the state's school finance system.

Over 5.3 million Texas students will be getting ready to go back to public schools when this special session wraps up in mid-August. Because of cuts and underfunding to public schools over the last several legislative sessions, those students can expect more crowded classrooms. Principals and school districts can expect limited resources that have not kept pace with inflation. School teachers know that many of them will have to pay for some school supplies out of their own meager salaries.

We know that high property taxes can put a strain on Texans. But this Senate bill will not end fast-rising property tax bills, as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dennis Bonnen has pointed out.

Instead, this dangerous proposal would interfere with local decisions and hamstring the ability of Texas' cities and counties to address the changing needs of their residents.

Let's stop rehashing bad ideas at the Capitol and instead come together to make some meaningful progress on funding public education. If we're going to spend the middle of the summer in Austin, then we might as well do some good for Texas.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Texas Association of Business have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Jim Keffer

Former state representative