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Analysis: The Texas Legislature giveth — and taketh away

Local governments and school districts battling the Texas Legislature over property taxes have a couple of things in common: They want local control over taxes and a more reliable partner in the state government.

State Rep. and Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, speaks at a press conference unveiling the school finance bill on March 6, 2017.

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The Texas House now has a proposal to throttle local property tax increases, and like legislation proposed in the Senate, it would require local voters to approve property tax increases of 4 percent or more.

It’s hard to blame Texas lawmakers for trying to cage local property taxes; constituents complain loudly about them, and politicians are in the business of trying to make their constituents happy. It’s the most hated tax in the state, according to the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

This is awkward, though. The state doesn’t levy property taxes — in Texas, only local governments can do that. The Texas Constitution blocks the state from collecting those taxes itself and also from setting the rates for local school districts and governments that are allowed to levy property taxes.

That puts state officeholders in the position of trying to put out a fire that’s technically not theirs — and to blame the high taxes on other officeholders. Local ones. But there’s more to it than that.

Though they do not set the rates, those same state officials bear much of the responsibility for your rising local property taxes.

School districts can point to the state’s declining share of the cost of public education and at the load that puts on local taxpayers to keep the schools going. The state paid 45 percent of the overall maintenance and operations costs 10 years ago; that has dropped to 38 percent, according to numbers cranked by the Legislative Budget Board.

Cities and counties say the state sends lots of unfunded mandates — instructions and orders that don’t include the money required to carry them out. One idea, adopted in some other states, is to outlaw unfunded state mandates to counties. In the meantime, a number of groups representing county governments in Texas are lobbying legislators to either lay off on the mandates or to allow them to raise the money needed to meet those mandates.

Though they do not set the rates, those same state officials bear much of the responsibility for your rising local property taxes.

Several of those groups, led by the Texas Association of Counties, surveyed many of the state’s counties to put some numbers on those mandates. It’s incomplete — not all of the 254 counties in Texas responded — but they cite cost increases over the last six years in jobs set out for them by the state in the judicial system (20.9 percent in increases), court-appointed attorneys for poor defendants (136 percent), court-appointed attorneys in child protection cases (28.1 percent), adult probation (77.9 percent), juvenile probation (20.6 percent) and county jails (20.1 percent).

The state’s school finance system is unique to Texas. Unfunded mandates to counties are a concern in many states, according to the National Association of Counties, and so are legislative attempts to limit property tax increases. Texas is just one of 42 states where state lawmakers have stepped in.

Current law requires voter approval for any property tax increase of more than 8 percent. Separate legislation pending in the Senate and in the House would cut that to 4 percent, leaving smaller increases to local officials and requiring voter approval of larger ones.

Legislative committees will open that combat next week, with hearings on Senate Bill 2, by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, that attempts to put a leash on rising property tax bills. Hearings have not been set for House Bill 15 by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, which sets out to accomplish the same thing.

The school finance debates have already begun, on a couple of fronts. Lawmakers are debating budget proposals that divert from public education some (the House) or all (the Senate) of the taxes brought in because of increases in the values of taxable property. They list that in their budget materials as “approximately $3.6 billion in reductions to state obligations resulting from projections of continued growth in property values.”

If you haven’t completed Legislativese as a Second Language, that means lawmakers will be depending on local taxpayers for that money and using what they would have been spending on public education for something else. The House wants at least some of that money to remain in public education; they started hearings Tuesday on House Bill 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, which would use $1.6 billion of that money to increase public education spending.

That one won’t lower your school property taxes, but it would put a little of that tax money into public education. That’s money your school board won’t have to replace with higher property taxes.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • A small group of Texas Republican officeholders in the Legislature and Congress have something new to worry about in the Donald Trump era: They won their November elections, but Hillary Clinton beat Trump in their districts.
  • The big bills and arguments and personalities in the Texas Legislature catch most of the attention and headlines, but little things deserve their time in the spotlight, too.
  • Lawmakers rarely get blamed for votes that never take place, and that's the basis for one of the oldest protection rackets in the legislative toolkit: Killing a controversial bill before it comes to the full House or Senate.

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