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Restrain, reform, rein in, restrict and limit are not synonyms for the word Texas property taxpayers crave: cut.
This is an alert: Your property taxes will not be falling, in spite of all the talk about easing property taxes that is emanating from the Texas Capitol.
State lawmakers can’t make property tax rates come down. They’ve tried. It didn’t make rates come down. And even trying is expensive: It would cost the state just under $2.5 billion to replace a dime’s worth of local school property taxes; that is, to lower the property tax rate by ten cents. On a $250,000 home, that would amount to overall savings of about $20 per month in property taxes.
But the state of Texas doesn’t levy property taxes — that’s the job of local governments. And it has proved to be impossible for state lawmakers to lower taxes they don’t control.
They can try to create conditions that could lower property taxes, increasing the state’s share of the costs of big programs like public education, public health, criminal justice and mental health. But because they don’t control either the appraisals of real estate or the tax rates imposed on those properties, Texas state lawmakers cannot guarantee a cut in your property taxes.
They hear a lot about it in town hall meetings and campaign visits, though, so you can’t blame them for trying.
The best recent example was in 2006, when then-Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature embarked on an ambitious rebalancing of public school finance that included what was supposed to be a swap that raised state taxes on corporations in return for lower local school property taxes.
The swap amounted to a $7 billion reduction in what Texans would have paid without it, the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, a business trade group, said at the time. But taxes didn’t drop. And Perry’s explicit promise that the average homeowner would save $2,000 came back to bite him during the 2006 race for governor.
Then-Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican running for governor as an independent, ran a commercial that started with Perry’s ad running on a TV set. The script:
Perry: “We kept our promises to you. The average homeowner will receive a $2,000 tax cut.”
Strayhorn: “Have you gotten your $2,000 property tax cut yet? Don’t go running to your mailbox. Turns out, most seniors get nothing. And the rest of us? Just about $52. About enough each week to buy a can of soda. We need a government that talks straight with Texans and gives us real property tax relief. And real honesty. This grandma wants to shake Austin up.”
You might be surprised at the number of Texas officeholders — those who were in office at the time and those who came in later — who still remember that commercial. It has become an important bit of the current political folklore, passed from one generation of politicians to the next.
And that cautionary tale is baked into the current conversation about property taxes. Two years ago, Texas lawmakers failed to pass limits on the size of property tax increases that could be enacted without voter approval. The state doesn’t have a property tax — the Texas Constitution prohibits it. So the logic was to allow cities and counties and special districts to impose large increases only if voters said so. The legislation fell apart over where the limit should fall; the House said 6 percent, the Senate went for 4 percent, the governor came in with a late proposal for 2.5 percent.
They’re back with the same idea, more or less, paired with the kind of higher spending on public education that would make it possible for some school districts — maybe — to lower their own property taxes without making budget cuts in schools.
“Maybe” is not a word used in airtight promises.
A perceptible change in school finance — one that taxpayers could actually feel — would cost the state an enormous amount of money. And, as in 2006, the state can’t guarantee that taxpayers would actually receive the intended benefits.
So lawmakers have resorted to words that don’t rhyme with “cuts” when they’re talking property taxes. Maybe they can limit the size of future increases. That would give them something to talk about, and voters might appreciate the work.
But it won’t lower the high property taxes voters are complaining about that. And if they don’t see relief, neither will the politicians.