Mayor Betsy Price had finished her address to about 1,200 people attending the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s State of the City event on Wednesday.
It had been a friendly talk, like she was telling close friends about very serious accomplishments and challenges at City Hall.
Then she answered questions, including an inquiry about her favorite color (red). The event was about to end, but the last question was no throwaway.
She was asked about the city’s view of the legislative session underway in Austin and the most important issues being discussed there.
Price, finishing her second two-year term as mayor and headed for a third (she has no opponent in the May 9 election), clearly was ready for that one.
Transportation and education are always important, she said, but what had her riled up most were legislative threats to the iconic Texas concept of local control.
Top state officials don’t like it when Washington, D.C., tells them what to do, she said, “and we don’t want them telling us what to do, either.”
That’s a theme sounded by many local officials from across the state, mainly because of two measures advocated by some high officials. Both would restrict how much money cities, counties, school districts and other local entities could raise to pay for their priorities.
These restrictions have been brought up in previous legislative sessions and have failed to receive the necessary support.
But this Legislature has a greater share of members who tout their conservatism, and recent elections have favored candidates who positioned themselves farthest to the right. Tax restrictions are made to order for them.
Price is no liberal. She’s as solidly Republican as they get, and she served a decade as Tarrant County’s cost-cutting tax assessor-collector before being elected mayor.
One of the legislative proposals would restrain increases in property tax appraisals. Some politicians believe the current limit, 10 percent growth in individual property values, is too lenient and means property owners still pay too much more in taxes each year.
“We must address the issue of property tax tied to rapidly increasing values,” says Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, long an advocate of appraisal restrictions.
But accurate appraisals are key to keeping the property tax system honest.
Appraisal restraints distort the system. If change is needed, it should come through the tax rates set by local government bodies.
Price’s point: Local voters elect local officials and can hold them directly accountable for the decisions they make, including taxes.
Another proposal would require voter approval if a local government’s property tax revenue is expected to increase by 5 percent — or a lower figure if population growth and inflation are low.
Voter approval is good, but voters give their approval by electing local officials and putting them in charge of important decisions. Accountability can be swift when those officials run again.
How likely is it that the Legislature will approve tax restrictions?
It’s telling that Patrick is still talking about concepts instead of specific bills.
He’s had no trouble talking very specifically about other things, including property tax cuts and reductions in the franchise tax.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said he won’t sign a budget without “lasting” tax relief for homeowners and “genuine” tax cuts for businesses.
He has said property tax relief “can’t be allowed to evaporate by rising property valuations.”
Those are strong positions for Abbott — but he’s still talking concepts, not specifics. Property tax restrictions are not among the emergency items he has listed for prompt legislative attention.
Meanwhile, local officials like Price are urging their own senators and representatives to let them continue exercising local control.
The 140-day legislative session will pass its 60th day next Friday, March 13. That’s the last day lawmakers can file bills other than those affecting specific localities, emergency appropriations or issues declared an emergency by the governor.
Very soon, tax restriction proposals should become very specific or go away.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830