Property taxes in Texas have skyrocketed over the last two decades. But state lawmakers may be getting ready to finally rein them in.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen recently unveiled a historic property tax reform package and announced that identical bills — Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2 — would be moving through both chambers. Gov. Abbott even declared property tax reform an emergency item this session.
The collective effort is unprecedented and if successful, promises to bring a world of change to a dysfunctional system. That change would let Texans prosper.
The biggest change is lowering the rollback rate — or “voter-approved tax rate,” as it’s called in Senate Bill 2 — to 2.5 percent and triggering an automatic election in November if a local government wants more money than the new limit allows.
Under the current system, the rollback rate is set at 8 percent, which means that local governments can raise your property taxes a lot from one year to the next before taxpayers are allowed to petition to challenge the increase. That’s proven to be a bad system for taxpayers.
The 8 percent figure may have been justifiable back in 1981 when it was first set due to double-digit inflation, but today’s inflationary environment is much different. In the last 20 years, annual inflation increases have averaged just 2.5 percent.
By comparison, property tax levies over the same period skyrocketed by 5.8 percent per year, effectively doubling every 12 years. That’s a big mismatch that signals the need to adjust downward the rollback rate so that revenue growth comes back down to earth and helps keep people from losing their homes and livelihood.
Of course, some support the status quo and argue that making this change to the rollback rate is tantamount to a “revenue cap,” but that’s false.
If a local taxing entity wants to raise revenue by more than 2.5 percent, then it can. All it has to do is secure the public’s permission by winning an election. This means that local governments will need to prioritize every taxpayer dollar to those areas most needed, such as public safety.
Speaking of elections, the Senate Committee on Property Tax recently passed Senate Bill 2 to the full Senate. The bill includes the details above, but they added an opt-in provision that allows small tax jurisdictions with revenue less than $15 million to hold an election in May 2020 for voters to decide whether they would be under a 2.5 percent rollback rate.
The House Ways & Means Committee looks poised to pass a similar measure in House Bill 2. The stars seem to finally be aligning behind promising reforms that would allow every Texas voter to have a greater voice in the tax rate-setting and thus the budget-setting process. Enhanced voter control over the direction of their communities is true local control.
As good as this particular property tax reform package is, though, taxpayers also want relief. The best way to do so is attacking the largest part of the property tax burden: the maintenance and operations school district property tax (M&O).
By combining the essential rollback rate reforms with slowing the growth of state spending to buy down the M&O tax until it’s eliminated, Texans could see their property tax bills’ growth rate cut by more than half and total burden cut in half over time.
Texans deserve property tax reform — and relief.