Remember the great school financing reform that is supposed to lower your school property taxes by 33 percent over two years? Don’t count on ever seeing the money.
Local governments—city, school, special districts—have a secret weapon to get their hands on it before you can. It’s a stealth tax on your property, created by the simple device of assessing its value a little higher every year. That means your savings from the school finance reform will be wiped out by increased valuations before you see a dime of it.
From 1998 to 2004, revenue from property taxes increased by about 55 percent in Texas, bringing in a bonanza of tax revenue for local governments. How much of a bonanza? During the same period, population growth in Texas and the Consumer Price Index combined only grew by 27 percent. In other words, local governments received a windfall of 28 percent in taxes from you that nobody had to campaign for, that nobody had to explain, and that nobody got to vote on.
Let me say right here that I believe in taxes. I’m one of those conservatives who likes sewers that work, streets that are paved, and schools with computers. But that doesn’t mean I like someone picking my pocket.
A system of taxation needs to be fair, transparent, and simple. The present system is unfair, secretive, and unwieldy. Property tax assessments are made by a non-elected board of appraisal. Its members are local governments. Its proceedings are not public. Its appeals process is Byzantine.
Last year the governor appointed 15 business leaders to analyze the system and make recommendations for reform. Here is the meat of their proposals:
1. Require voter approval for local governments that want to increase spending more than 5 percent. Texans often think of New York as a quasi-socialist state. Yet every year, voters in New York school districts vote to approve or disapprove of the annual school budget. The rule ought to be, the more local the more democratic.
2. Improve the fairness of the appraisal process. Appoint two regular citizens to the appraisal board, require appraisers be professionally qualified, require the appraiser to provide the burden of proof, and submit appeals to arbitration.
3. Require sales price disclosure. Texas is almost alone in keeping sales information secret. What good does that serve? The fairest appraisals are set by the marketplace, not by some government employee.
4. End unfunded mandates. Local governments are terrified that the Legislature will dip into local budgets by establishing a requirement and neglecting to provide the money to pay for it—much as Congress has been known to do to the states. The current Legislature, composed of a sensible conservative majority, should propose a constitutional amendment to prevent future Legislatures from indulging in the practice.
These are good ideas, right?
Local governments don’t think so. They’ve marshaled an army of professional lobbyists to fight them tooth and nail. And guess who’s paying for those lobbyists? That’s right, you and I are. And guess what we’re paying them with. Right, again—our property taxes. This is how rotten the Texas system has gotten.
So the question of the day is, who is your legislator or state senator going to support—you or your local taxing authority? Why don’t you ask? To find out who represents you (and to find out if he or she really does), go to www.capitol.state.tx.us.
That will tell you whom to write. Nobody can, or needs to, tell you what to say.