This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on November 30, 2015.
With voter approval of Proposition 1 on Nov. 3, which raises the homestead exemption on property taxes for school districts by $10,000, Texas homeowners will get some reprieve from paying skyrocketing property taxes. Though this is welcome short-term relief, it’s time to stop tinkering around the edges of the nation’s 14th worst property tax system and abolish it so Texans have the freedom to own property.
“The Freedom to Own Property: Reforming Texas’ Local Property Tax,” a recent study released by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, highlights the need to end property taxes and the economic gains of replacing them with a reformed sales tax.
Compared with a 70 percent increase in population growth plus inflation since 2000, local property taxes are up 101 percent, leaving a mounting annual tab of about $1,600 per Texan. Simply, property taxes are outstripping Texans’ ability to afford a home and put food on the table.
What should an Austinite expect from the latest round of property tax relief?
Let’s say you have a home in Austin at the median value of $285,000 that increased 11.3 percent during the last year according to Zillow.com. This substantial price increase in the housing market is from a combination of elevated demand from new arrivals to Austin, netting about 110 people every day, and the restricted supply from onerous regulations. Zillow notes that Austin’s real estate market is overheated as it forecasts only a 3.5 percent increase this year.
With more than 4,000 local taxing jurisdictions statewide, the five in Austin are the Austin Independent School District, City of Austin, Travis County, Central Health and Austin Community College that sum to a 2.38 percent total tax rate. Accounting for exemptions, such as the $15,000 exemption for the Austin school district, your property tax bill would be $6,262.
Proposition 1 raises this school district exemption to $25,000, reducing your annual bill by $122 with no other changes. Though more dollars in your pocket is always better, there’s more to the story.
If your home value went up by only 1.9 percent, you wouldn’t see any change in your tax bill, which is highly unlikely given recent trends. If your home value went up by a projected 3.5 percent, you would owe $104 more.
This also doesn’t account for property tax rate changes determined by local governing jurisdictions. As a hypothetical example, if the Austin school district raised its property tax rate from 1.222 percent to 1.276 percent, this 4.4 percent increase would erase your savings.
What about another likely scenario with both changes in the home value and tax rate?
In that case, the homeowner would owe an additional $110. This clearly shows that Proposition 1 will lead to lower property tax bills for homesteads than without it, leading to relief but very few cuts to a growing burden.
The short-term relief is similar to the reforms in 2006 induced by the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the state essentially had a statewide property tax, which is forbidden by the Texas Constitution. The Legislature bought down property taxes, leading to only a one-year decline in total property tax revenue, and held the school districts harmless by swapping it with a reformed business tax, known as the margin tax, that most agree should be eliminated.
Instead of providing short-term relief in the future or enacting a worse tax, the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s study highlights the benefits of abolishing property taxes and replacing them with a reformed sales tax so Texans can finally own property rather than renting it from the government, forever allowing them to reach their full potential.
This will likely not happen overnight, as Proposition 1 banned a transfer tax on property, which there should never be a property tax and a sales tax on property. However, legislators should make a concerted effort to improve the well-being of struggling homeowners, renters and all Texans by considering an end to costly property taxes and substituting them with a more efficient sales tax.
Ginn is an economist in the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation; email@example.com.