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The elections are over — but if you think they were hard-fought, just wait until you see what’s next. The Texas Legislature convenes in just six weeks.
There’ll be a long list of things for newly elected and veteran lawmakers to argue about. And now two of the traditionally most difficult of those issues — public school finance and local property tax reform — have drawn significant new proposals from Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott’s stance, combined with the rapid post-election ascendance of tax-reform advocate Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, as front-runner to replace retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, and previous strong support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, means the stars are aligning for property tax cuts and school finance changes in Texas.
Abbott mostly stood by in 2017 as lawmakers wrestled over school finance and property tax in that year’s 140-day regular session and a 30-day special session called by the Republican governor.
Their efforts fizzled, but now Abbott, fresh from an impressive win over his Democratic opponent on Nov. 6, looks like he might be ready to take a stronger leadership role.
That’s not to imply that a light switch suddenly went off in Abbott’s head. An 86-page slide show presentation put together by his office and published by the Texas Tribune on Nov. 1 clearly shows evidence of careful long-term planning.
The Tribune report said the presentation, dated Oct. 29 and titled “Improving Student Outcomes and Maintaining Affordability through Comprehensive Education and Tax Reforms,” has been shown to some educators and members of the state’s business community.
Abbott’s proposals are far from perfect. But it’s still early, and his apparent decision to lead is encouraging.
In fact, given the Legislature’s 2017 experience, some strong and reasonable gubernatorial leadership might be the only way to get progress on these two vital issues.
Abbott’s plan is chock full of good reasons to reform Texas public education.
Too few Texas students are prepared for college or the military, it says. Reading levels are too low, and lack of post-secondary credentials hurts the state economy.
The governor wants to address those problems through such steps as rewarding good teachers who volunteer to work in the toughest schools and giving bonuses to districts for improved performance, especially among low-income students.
But his plan for coupling those goals with a new, 2.5 percent limit on annual increases in property tax income for school districts, cities and counties will be problematic. Legislative efforts in 2017 fell apart over arguments about whether the limit should be 4 percent or 6 percent.
“State revenues will be utilized to ensure districts do not lose money as a result of this compression of tax collections,” Abbott’s plan says. There’s no such promise for cites and counties hit by the same compression.
The trouble is, the governor can’t guarantee that state revenue will be steered to schools. Short of a constitutional amendment passed by voters, only the Legislature can allocate state funds. And what the Legislature does in one session could be undone in the next session.
The limits on property tax revenue in Abbott’s plan would push local tax rates down. Some lawmakers have complained for years that local officials don’t reduce rates fast enough to compensate for rapidly climbing property values, and tax bills go up much faster than median income.
Still, there is no windfall for homeowners in this plan. Rough calculations show that people in average single-family homes in Fort Worth and Arlington might see a decrease of about $100 in their combined city, county and school district tax bills if the governor’s proposals were in effect this year.
But individual city, county and school district revenue losses could be many millions of dollars.
Property owners with much more invested than single-family homeowners — those with multifamily properties, office buildings, commercial and industrial property — would benefit most.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it would even be a significant economic boost.
It’s just not what some homeowners have been hoping for. Not yet, at least. But it’s still way early in the policy-making game.
Abbott’s leadership in making it better will be welcome.