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Local officials unite to fight property tax caps

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Just hours after Gov. Greg Abbott delivered his State of the State address on Tuesday, declaring school finance reform, property tax relief and teacher pay raises to be emergency items on the legislative agenda, county officials from around the state held a news conference to say they support school finance reform but revenue caps will only hurt Texans.

Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2 are nearly identical measures that would prevent cities, counties and school districts from raising property taxes 2.5 percent or more without voter approval. By declaring the items emergencies, the governor set the stage for public hearings to begin on those bills immediately. The new Senate Property Tax Committee will hold its first public hearing on SB 2 today.

At the press conference, Anderson County Judge Robert D. Johnson, who is president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, declared, “Revenue caps won’t reduce property taxes – addressing school finance and the tax appraisal process will.” He said high-growth communities such as his own are hit particularly hard by revenue caps. For example, he said local government incentives to businesses are essential for creating new jobs, but the county may not be able to continue to offer those incentives if saddled with a 2.5 percent property tax, as the governor has proposed.

About 30 local elected officials joined Johnson in criticizing revenue caps while offering to work with state lawmakers to achieve school finance reform and property tax relief.

Cooke County Judge Jason Brinkley said he is optimistic that state leaders will hear their concerns. He said in his fast-growing North Texas county, which includes Gainesville, more than 50 percent of the taxes paid go to the school district, so reforming the school finance system is a top priority.

Midland Mayor Pro Tem John Love said 63 percent of Midland’s budget is spent on public safety. He said he and his fellow Council members recognize that Texans do not like large property tax increases and so they work to keep taxes low. He pointed out that citizens can express their disapproval of tax increases at the ballot box if they choose to do so.

Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller explained that one of the really big problems for Texas counties is unfunded mandates – programs mandated by the Legislature that local governments must pay for whether they have the money or not. Unfunded mandates include payments to attorneys for indigent defendants in criminal cases, jail diversion programs and forcing counties to hold prisoners who have been convicted and should be placed in state prisons.

Zeller said unfunded mandates take up 44 percent of Victoria County’s general fund.

Precinct 5 Constable Carlos Lopez told the Austin Monitor that unfunded mandates “impact all the departments across Travis County.” His office serves domestic violence protective orders as well as eviction notices, and provides disabled parking enforcement. He is also the chair of the legislative committee for Texas constables within the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas.

Lopez explained, “We do an array of things as the law enforcement arm of the courts. All of these services are expected, are mandated by the state – we don’t really have a choice about the services. Well, who pays for these? Taxpayers have to pay for them, so they’re going to have to figure out how to pay for the services,” if the Legislature passes the 2.5 percent tax cap. “We may have to gut certain things. Around my office, it could be part of the disabled parking enforcement. That’s a small portion of it. Maybe we just don’t do that anymore. It could affect services for the domestic violence protective orders, so what are we going to do? Something’s going to have to give. ”

All of the officials present said they support House Joint Resolution 30 and HJR 10, which would place a constitutional amendment on next November’s ballot to prevent legislators from approving new unfunded mandates.

Earlier Tuesday, Austin City Council members heard from Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo, who described a more difficult scenario for the upcoming budget than Council members experienced last fall.

In discussing how this year’s budget might be affected by a lowered revenue cap, Council Member Alison Alter told her colleagues, “We need our community to recognize these decisions that may be before us and we need our community to be raising their voices at the Legislature.”

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza added, “Speaking at the Capitol, our business community needs to be there as well. We approve millions of dollars in procurement contracts at every single Council meeting … These revenue caps could affect our ability to extend those contracts as well as those companies’ ability to employ some of our Austinites. So I think that needs to be part of the conversation.”

Photo by Alan Kotok made available through a Creative Commons license.

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