January 6, 2017
By Sen. Kirk Watson – Special to the American-Statesman
A lot is at stake for Austin as the Texas Legislature comes back to town in January.
Yes, the city’s ride-hailing ordinance is under attack as are a host of other local policies approved by the Austin City Council. We haven’t seen this kind of Austin-bashing since the ’90s. In fact, we’ve heard one committee is planning a hearing dedicated solely to beating up on Austin.
But there’s a much greater challenge facing Austin and the city’s ability to respond to the needs and wants of taxpayers. Senate Bill 2 would tie the hands of local governments under the guise of cutting property taxes. The bill limits how much the property tax rate can increase without voter approval. The current rate is 8 percent; SB 2 would ratchet it down to 4 percent.
Austin taxpayers have reason to be frustrated with their property taxes, but SB 2 will do little to lower them.
If SB 2 had been in effect this year, the city tax bill for the average Austin homeowner would have been trimmed by about $40. It wouldn’t have affected the Travis County portion of the bill at all because the adopted tax rate was less than 4 percent.
Meanwhile, that same homeowner in Austin ISD is paying about $1,350 — almost 40 percent of his or her school tax bill — just for Robin Hood, which the Legislature uses to cover part of its own constitutional obligation to fund public education.
The Legislature is the biggest culprit when it comes to high property taxes in Texas and could do far more for you as a taxpayer by increasing how much the state puts into public education.
That costs money, however, and there isn’t much to spare this coming session because of some short-sighted decisions, such as the $2.6 billion franchise tax cut last session. Mind you, that tax was changed in 2006 to bring in more revenue that would help pay for education and provide property tax relief.
Instead, the strategy has been to redirect taxpayers’ frustration at the property taxes assessed, in particular, by cities and counties. And the city of Austin has been a favorite target.
So, what’s at stake?
Public safety — police, fire and emergency medical service — accounts for nearly 70 percent of the city’s general fund, which is fed by the property tax. The rest of the general fund is used to pay for libraries, parks and the community services we value. As the pie gets smaller, something has to get squeezed.
Austin would have foregone more than $15 million if SB 2 had been in effect this year. That’s real money that went to increasing police and firefighter staffing, supporting social services, and upgrading the city’s parks, pools and trails.
Taxpayers certainly do deserve a break on their property taxes.
Last session, I had legislation that would have given cities, counties and other local governments the option of providing a flat-dollar homestead exemption. Right now, they may only offer percentage-based exemption up to 20 percent, which has the effect of directing the greatest benefit to the owners of the highest-value homes. The flat-dollar exemption, however, helps the low- and middle-income homeowners who need it most.
My legislation cleared the Texas Senate and was headed to the House floor when it got stuck behind some high-profile, hot-button issues that ran out the clock.
I’m trying again this session and am hopeful we’ll be able to provide homeowners a real break.
I’ve also filed Senate Bill 290 to stop the practice of the state taking advantage of rising local property values by decreasing the state’s contribution to schools.
When I was Austin mayor, I said one of the values of cities is that people living in them have direct access to their officials and can ask for those things they need or want to make day-to-day life happy, fun and safe. I still believe that.
Originally ran Jan. 4th at http://www.mystatesman.com/news/opinion/watson-plenty-stake-for-austin-taxpayers-this-legislative-session/uKm1u7E4h5674oszlIqWHJ/