Texas Politics

Democrats: Don’t quit, fight. Plus property tax remedies



While Republicans revel in their landslide victory Nov. 4, the chairman of the Texas Senate’s Democratic Caucus isn’t trying to downplay his party’s rout.

Instead, Austin Sen. Kirk Watson is calling for Democrats to fight rather than quit.

“I won’t sugarcoat how ugly and messy this upcoming legislative session is going to be,” Watson wrote in an on-line letter to Democrats. “We’ll have to fight to protect our public schools, to ensure women’s health isn’t gutted even more and to shine a light on the narrow minded immigration policies that are sure to be considered.”

The Senate Democratic ranks were thinned by one, to just 11 of the 31 senators. Wendy Davis gave up her Senate to run for governor. and lost badly to Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott.

Her replacement is Tea Party-aligned Republican Konni Burton. Watson urged Democrats to “Keep the fight for Texas families going this spring.”

Watson spent five years as Austin’s mayor before becoming the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2002. He said he’s no stranger to the disappointment of defeat.

Like every other statewide Democrat that year, Watson got drubbed. Now-incoming Gov. Greg Abbott beat him for attorney general, 57.6 to 41.1 percent.

“I know far too well that lure of giving up,” Watson wrote. “(I) could have walked away from politics. But that would have meant giving up on the people of Texas and the stakes were just too high. They still are.”

Watson returned to public office in 2006, winning his current post as state senator.

Now he faces an even more Republican senate than before – and more conservative. • • • Property Tax Cut Battle Lines . . . . Watson and one of his new Republican colleagues-to-be, Paul Bettencourt of Houston, are already offering competing remedies for rising property taxes.

Bettencourt spent a decade as Harris County Tax Assessor Collector before winning the Senate seat Dan Patrick left to make a successful run for lieutenant governor.

“The problem is simple,” Bettencourt said in a press statement. “As property values go up, tax rates rarely go down. The result is that property tax bills can soar by nearly 10% or more a year, which is at least twice as fast as most Texans’ paychecks.”

Bettencourt said record increases in home values in Texas’ major cities and fracking boom towns have brought record increases in property tax appraisals.

He has pre-filed a bill to lower the tax increase trigger point for a rollback election on property taxes if they increase by 4 percent from the previous year. The current trigger is 8 percent.

His SB 182 would also make a rollback election mandatory if the rate cap is exceeded, rather than requiring voters to petition for it.

The lower rate would drop the average Austin homeowner’s property tax about $200, Bettencourt estimated.

Former Mayor Watson, however, thinks the Legislature putting a lid on local property tax rates, while foisting the state’s responsibility to fund Texas public schools onto local school district taxpayers, is embarrassing.

“In 2013, state budgetwriters banked on nearly $3 billion from local school property taxes to cover a portion of Texas’ obligation to schoolchildren,” Watson said, in an opinion column in the Texas Tribune’s “Trib Talk.”

“That amounted to 45 percent of the additional so-called ‘state’ funding in the 2014-15 budget used to pay for new students, instructional materials and the restoration of some of the state budget cuts made in 2011,” Watson said.

“State officials scoop up school property taxes, then deflect the blame for higher taxes onto cities and counties,” Watson charged. “They righteously call for tax reform, offering holier-than-thou proposals that seek to tie the hands of locally elected officials by limiting their ability to raise tax rates each year.”

The state doesn’t levy property taxes, Watson said, and it is “arrogant and undemocratic” to “demonize” local officials.

“What makes folks inside the Capitol think they know better than the elected officials chosen to decide a city’s or county’s taxes?” Watson asked. “Those local officials are elected just like we are.”

He said the $15,000 school tax homestead exemption enacted in 1997, when the average Texas home was valued at $66,000, hasn’t been raised, even while home appraisal values have more than doubled.

Watson said raising the exemption to $25,000 “would lower the tax bill for a homeowner in the Austin school district by $120, which would have cut in half this year’s increase on an averagevalue home. By linking the exemption to inflation, we can ensure that it keeps its value.”

State lawmakers “should stop pointing fingers, be honest about our role in the property tax problem and then do something about it,” Watson said.

DAVE MCNEELY is a political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@ gmail or (512)458 2963.

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