Property taxes are crushing small businesses, middle-class families and elderly Texans.
In 2016, property taxes levied statewide grew to $56.1 billion. That’s a burden so large that the taxman effectively took $2,000 from every man, woman, and child in the Lone Star State or $8,000 from a family of four.
Tax bills aren’t just gigantic though. They’re also growing fast.
In 2011, property taxes foisted onto Texas taxpayers totaled a more modest $40.5 billion. That means that from 2011 to 2016, the overall tax burden grew by $15.6 billion or by roughly 40 percent. That’s quite an increase, especially compared to population growth and inflation.
Texas’ population numbered 25.6 million in 2011. By 2016, that figure had grown to 27.9 million, equating to a five-year increase of 8.8 percent. Over the same period, inflation rose mildly by 6.7 percent. Combined, population and inflation climbed by a little less than 16 percent, well under than actual tax levy growth.
When property taxes grow faster than they should—i.e. population and inflation—bad things tend to happen. Small businesses have more trouble making payroll. Middle-class families have less money to save and invest. And elderly Texans, many of whom are on a fixed income, risk being taxed out of their homes.
Obviously, no one wants to see these things happen, so the question is: how do we fix Texas’ broken property tax system?
The best and most obvious solution is to get rid of it. There are several credible plans floating out there right now that could push Texas toward elimination of some or all of our property taxes. Short of that, however, there are intermediate solutions that could help contain the problem—such as creating a property tax trigger.
A trigger would require local officials to get voter approval before raising taxes too much in any one year. In more technical terms, it would reduce the rollback tax rate, preferably set at 2.5 percent or less, and trigger an automatic election if city, county or school district officials wanted more.
Changing the system like this offers several advantages.
First, it would streamline the process. Currently, if a taxing entity exceeds the rollback rate, citizens must collect signatures to petition a rollback referendum. This proposal would make a rollback election automatic, thus putting the onus where it belongs—on local officials.
Second, it would force local officials to be better stewards of scarce resources or risk going before voters. Third, it would empower individuals and give voters more control over the direction of their community.
Another way to help contain Texas’ property tax problem is to illuminate the cost of debt.
When a voter casts a ballot today, he or she is provided with only two pieces of information for any given bond proposition: a short paragraph of legalese vaguely describing the projects, and the principal amount to be borrowed. That’s not enough information for anyone to make an informed decision.
Voters need more facts in front of them before deciding on new debt — especially when it comes to cost.
At a minimum, every bond proposition should tell voters how the average homeowner’s tax bill will increase if it passes. It’s critical that a voter know this detail and that the general public better understand the connection between new debt and new taxes.
Creating a property tax trigger and arming voters with relevant information are two ideas that could have a big, positive impact on the local government landscape. Both ideas would make the property tax system more transparent and also put more power in the hands of individual decision-makers.
That is, assuming lawmakers don’t get rid of it entirely and replace it with something better instead.
James Quintero is director of the Center for Local Governance and leads the Think Local Liberty Project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Courtney Joyner is a research associate at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and can be reached at email@example.com.