Tarrant County is now front and center in the fight to lower property taxes.
County Judge Glen Whitley has drawn statewide attention for preaching what he believes — that Texans pay high property taxes because the state has long cut back on what it spends to educate public school students — and now a group of local state senators is firing back.
"Let's set the record straight. Local property tax rates are set by locally elected officials. Period," according to a letter sent to the Star-Telegram by the Tarrant County Texas Senate delegation. "They are not determined by an informational rider in the state budget as Judge Whitley dishonestly suggests.
"He well knows our school finance formula dictates that local property tax revenue [goes] into the system first, with state funding added on top. This has been the case since the 1940s. Local property tax collections dictate the state’s share of education funding — not vice versa."
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The Republican Senate delegation includes state Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, one of the state's top budget writers, as well as Sens. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, Brian Birdwell of Granbury and Konni Burton of Colleyville.
Whitley, normally a low-profile local Republican, has been giving speeches recently in which he talks about property taxes, saying the state's not paying what it should. He plans to give another speech later this week.
"It seems like there has been this move afoot to point the finger at local governments and say we are out of control with our property taxes," Whitley said Monday. "But school taxes have really gone up ... as a direct result of the state reducing its commitment to education."
If the state would just pay the 67 percent it once did to cover public education costs, rather than the 38 percent it now pays, then school districts across the state could slash tax rates and give Texans real property tax relief, Whitley said.
"If it was so simple that we could reduce the local rates and the state would make up the difference, do you think we'd be having this problem?" he asked.
And if the Legislature would stop forcing unfunded mandates — such as leaving state prisoners in local jails — then the county could drop its property tax rate as well, Whitley said.
"I want us to be partners (with lawmakers)," he said. "I feel over the past decade they have treated us as their enemy."
Several locally elected officials say they are glad Whitley has drawn attention to the funding problem they've struggled with for so long.
"He has spoken the truth and it needs to be well known what's going on," said Norman Robbins, a Fort Worth school district trustee. "The state Legislature doesn't want (taxpayers) to realize what's going on because they want them to blame local officials."
Robbins agreed that lawmakers have backed off their responsibility to fund public education and said "it's going to do long-term damage to the state."
The solution, he and others say, is for the Legislature to reform the school finance system.
Property tax valuations have steadily climbed in Tarrant County, which has led to larger tax bills and more revenue for the government.
A statewide study in 2015 showed that local property tax values were low, but follow up studies in 2016 and 2017 — after property values here grew by more than 10 percent each year — showed the new values were valid.
In the wake of rising property values, Whitley points out in his speeches that lawmakers assumed school tax payments would go up another 14 percent when they worked to balance the state budget.
"This estimate is a projection, not a target," according to the senators' statement. "And by no means is it a directive for local governments to raise property taxes.
"Judge Whitley knows this. His speech was not 'unplugged.' It was uninformed at best and willfully misleading at worst," according to the statement. "When one considers all funding sources, our current budget increased education funding by $5.2 billion. Whether at the state or local level, Texas taxpayers are footing this bill."
The House unsuccessfully tried to add more public school funding to the budget last year.
"The judge isn't wrong, but remember the Texas House voted repeatedly to put another $1.9 billion of state funding into public ed so that local property taxes weren't carrying quite such a heavy share," Jason Embry, spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, tweeted on Sunday.
'I'll stand by the record'
Denton County Judge Mary Horn said she's been in Austin many times with Whitley testifying against a variety of proposed property tax bills.
She noted at the end of Gov. Mark White's term in 1987, the state was paying 67 percent of all education costs in Texas. That number is now down to 38 percent, she said.
"One could reasonably argue that local property taxes are rising in part due to the state not addressing school finance," she said. "I think Judge Whitley is absolutely correct. If they really want to address property taxes in Texas, they need to go back to square one and address school finance."
The Republican senators noted in their letter that the Texas Commission on School Finance is studying the issue.
The commission, they said, "is actively conducting an in-depth review of our school finance formulas to ensure that we have an equitable education system that prepares our students for success. The musings of a county judge with zero responsibility over public education are not going to help us get there."
The senators ended their letter by stating that they care about educating Texas children.
"We are concerned about rising property taxes," according to their statement. "We would hope that state and local elected officials would work together to ensure that our children all receive a quality education and that Texans are not taxed out of their homes in the process."
Whitley said he's not surprised that the senators sent out a letter addressing his recent comments.
"They are going to throw it out there and think everyone is going to believe what they have to say," Whitley said. "It's dishonest. But they can say what they want to say. I'll stand by the record."