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Analysis: On Texas’ high property taxes, there’s plenty of blame to go around

State lawmakers are not solely to blame for the increasing burden on local property taxpayers, but they are certainly as responsible as anyone else.

A lawmaker reads a flyer with property tax information that was distributed to Texas House members' desks on Aug. 12, 2017.

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Texas state senators are touchy, touchy, touchy when it comes time to hand out blame for rising property taxes.

They’ve spent a decade hacking away at the state’s share of public education spending, and their current refrain is that the local districts have run amok by raising property tax bills.

What they don’t like is having anyone — especially an official someone — pointing out the relationship between the state’s declining per-student education spending and the rise in local property taxes.

To cap that, the latest flare-up came from Tarrant County, the most populous red county in the Republican state of Texas — a big jewel in the GOP’s crown and an exception to the trend of urban counties becoming more Democratic.  

The official someone, this time, was Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a Republican who’s been on the commissioner’s court for more than two decades. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy, Whitley told a local crowd last week that the increases in their property taxes were driven by the state’s failure to pay its share of public education costs.

He put a page from the current state budget on screen for the crowd so they could read this increasingly infamous gem on page III-5: “Property values, and the estimates of local tax collections on which they are based, shall be increased by 7.04 percent for tax year 2017 and 6.77 percent for the tax year 2018.”

Sounds awful, right? Be fair: It’s not the state dictating a tax rate, but the state’s estimate of what the school districts are going to do. The local tax revenue helps determine state spending on education.

A small pack of local state senators, in a letter sent to the Star-Telegram and copied to the rest of the state news media, said Whitley was “dishonestly” suggesting that the state was setting local property tax rates.

“Let's set the record straight,” they wrote. “Local property tax rates are set by locally elected officials. Period. They are not determined by an informational rider in the state budget as Judge Whitley dishonestly suggests. He well knows our school finance formula dictates that local property tax revenue go into the system first, with state funding added on top. This has been the case since the 1940s. Local property tax collections dictate the state’s share of education funding — not vice versa.”

That’s correct, as far as it goes. But local public education spending — and the property taxes that fund it — have risen over the last decade as the state’s share of public education has fallen. “Dictate” is a strong word to use on school districts trying to make up for the state’s spending cuts.

And here’s a pro-tip for students of subterfuge: Tell the truth while you’re lying. Those senators say, truthfully, that state spending in the current budget is up significantly — $5.8 billion more than it was in the previous two-year budget, according to the Legislative Budget Board. They don’t say, however, that the state’s share is sliding from 43.7 percent of the total Foundation School Program spending in 2016 to 38 percent in 2019. Or that the state covered 48.5 percent of the total as recently as 2008 — ten years ago. Or that, thanks to the ever-increasing number of Texas school kids, state spending per student has fallen even as total state spending has risen.

Local spending in 2008, according to the LBB, was 51.5 percent of total local-state education spending. In 2019, it’ll be 62 percent.

One more set of numbers to round this out: Local spending, according to the LBB, is rising $6.9 billion from the 2016-17 biennium to the current 2018-19 biennium. The state’s part is actually dropping $1.1 billion from the first two-year budget to the second.

Spending from state tax dollars is down. Spending from local tax dollars is up. Overall spending, which does go through the state budget and funding formulas — giving state lawmakers scads of political wiggle room — is up.

Student populations are exploding, too, but that’s a set of numbers for another day.

The bottom line is that Whitley has a strong argument. State lawmakers are not solely to blame for the increasing burden on local taxpayers, but they are certainly as responsible as anyone else. The senators are right about this: There’s certainly no reason to let local school boards, county commissioners and city council people off the hook, because those are, in fact, the people who levy property taxes.

But don’t let state senators skate, either, even though they seem to be better at it than most of the people competing in PyeongChang right now. When the state stops paying its share, locals — the property tax folks — have to find the money somewhere. They’re finding it by taxing property owners.

Blame all of them. It’s only fair.

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