We are hearing a lot of talk from state leaders at the beginning of this legislative session about reforming school finance and raising teacher pay, but in what may be a sign of rough sailing to come is the fact that the first bill scheduled for a committee hearing is a measure, SB2, that would impose crippling limits on property taxes.
You don’t reform school finance or raise teacher pay by enacting a law, as SB2 proposes, to make it impossible for local elected officials to raise the necessary revenue for schools, police and fire protection and other important public services for their growing communities. If SB2 passes without a significant increase in state funding for public education, we are looking at potential teacher layoffs, not teacher pay raises.
Yes, initial budget proposals in the House and the Senate would increase state education funding, and Gov. Greg Abbott also is kind of talking about it. “The state will be making new investments in education,” he said in his State of the State address, without giving us any idea what size his commitment might be. The first step toward real school finance reform and real property tax relief is not unreasonable caps on property tax increases. It is a significant infusion of new state dollars into the public education budget.
Property taxes are high not because local officials are going crazy raising tax rates. Property taxes are high because of rising property values and state government’s passing the buck on public school funding to school districts.
The state now pays for only 38 percent of the Foundation School Program, while property taxpayers pay the remaining 62 percent, the Legislative Budget Board has calculated. You change that imbalance with more state funding, and this year the Legislature has the money to at least make a big down payment on doing the right thing.
The comptroller has projected additional general revenue of as much as $9 billion is available for lawmakers as well as a record $15 billion balance in the Rainy Day Fund.
SB2 would impose a 2.5 percent limit on property tax increases without voter approval, which makes it even worse than the 4 percent limit that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate majority tried to cram down our throats two years ago. Then-Speaker Joe Straus and the House killed the idea then by countering with a proposed 6 percent limit, which would have been bad enough.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the main sponsor of SB2 and chairman of the Senate’s new Property Tax Committee, has remarked, “The laugh line I use is the House was at 6 percent, the Senate was at 4 percent and the governor compromised at 2.5 percent.”
When it comes to property tax “relief,” SB2 is a joke, and a bad one at that.