Monday, March 26, 2012

Why are my property taxes so high?

In the early 1960's, Texas homeowner taxpayers paid lower property taxes on their homes than homeowners in 45 other states.  Today, if you own real property in Texas, your property taxes are as high as the top 5 states.  There are several reasons for this phenomenon.

First of all, the phoney “no new taxes” mantra which has been the by-word of politicians seeking a seat in the Texas Legislature has led to higher and higher taxes on your homestead as well as higher fees for almost everything you can imagine.

In the 1940's when the Legislature made a serious commitment to public education, our state was paying over 65% of the cost of public education.  Today, almost 70% of the cost of public education is borne by local property taxes on your home and business.

While the mantra of “no new taxes” at the state legislative levels is one of the villains in escalating property taxes, it certainly is not the only one.  Another culprit is the increasing number of exemptions.  While admittedly many good arguments can be made for every exemption from property taxes on the books, they do in fact, each and every one, increase the taxes on your home or business. 

One of the larger exemption games is the one played supposedly to attract new businesses to a particular area.  Too often large exemptions from taxation are offered to an industry or business to locate to a particular area.  Not only does such an exemption add an additional tax burden to the local folks who do not have exemptions, but also, in many instances, it is downright unfair to many of the local businesses.  A prime example of this is the huge exemption from taxation given to the giant Cabella’s store in Kyle, Texas, a small town just outside of Austin.  While Cabella’s built a mega-sporting goods store and created some jobs, it certainly did not benefit local mom and pop shops which sold rod and reels or fishing gear.  In fact, it forced the mom and pop shops which sell sporting goods, hunting clothing, archery equipment, etc., to help finance a major competitor which likely will put them out of business. 

The city of Port Arthur granted huge tax breaks for major refining operations in the area.  Theoretically, had the city not done so, refinery expansions would have gone to some other location.  Also, the exemption of charitable or religious organizations adds to the tax burden.  While I realize I’m now treading on sacred ground to even dare suggest the Baptist Church, the VFW, or the American Legion facilities be taxed, just imagine how much we could lower the average homeowner’s tax bill were we willing to tax everything.  As a matter of fact, a good argument could be made that it is unfair for an atheist to help subsidize churches he does not believe in. 

Recently, the state Legislature folded into law what I consider one of the most egregious tax breaks ever enacted.  In the recent session legislation was passed giving tax exemptions on Chamber of Commerce buildings.  The theory presented was that businessmen in a community pay lots of taxes; therefore, a building dedicated to promoting business should not be taxed.  This appears to me to be an extremely dangerous trend.  What’s next?  Should union halls be taxed?  If all lawyers in a community got together and created a Taj Mahal to promote law business in a particular county, should it be taxed? 

If you’re tired of your taxes continuing to go up year after year, maybe it’s time you, as a citizen and homeowner or business owner, begin to ask your elected officials about some of these matters.  Even better, we should all, as citizens, begin to ask our elected official--particularly those in the Legislature--to at least start having open discussions and explore new ideas of fair ways to support the essential services of government.  Currently, the subject of taxation or raising revenue is such a taboo the only political conversation we hear at election time is how we can balance our budget by simply cutting out the waste.  Invariably, what follows is a healthy debate about waste that I would consider being someone else’s necessity.  A good example of this is Texas’ leadership shortchanging our children’s future by cutting education funding and endangering women by abolishing vital services to screen for cancer and other serious illnesses.


Lack of participation at election time is counterproductive to the efficient operation of a democracy.  Theoretically, the more people who vote and participate in the selection of our leaders, the better the result should be.  There are even some fledgling democracies in the world that make it mandatory that their citizens vote.  While I doubt if such a proposition would fly in the United States, our various levels of government should not engage in activity that would discourage or diminish the number of people voting. 

Unfortunately, in the most recent legislative session, one of the top priorities for the Republican majority was passage of a voter ID bill.  In theory it was argued by the majority that the legislation was simply an effort to do away with voter fraud.  As revealed in public hearings on the measure, numerous studies and investigations of voter fraud in Texas turned up an infinitesimal amount of fraud--most of which dealt with absentee ballots (which this bill did not address).  There were no discernible instances of voter fraud wherein a person claimed to be someone that he was not.  The Republican majority, however, pressed on with their high-priority legislation, even sacrificing over 50 years of tradition in the Senate by ignoring the “two-thirds rule”.  Apparently, the Republican Party did little or no homework in support of the legislation.  There is no research showing that such a measure would have an appreciable impact on voter fraud without discriminating against a significant number of voters in our state. 

This week the Republicans’ lack of doing their homework jumped up to bite them.  The Department of Justice, under Section G of the Voters Rights Act, has found the policy enunciated by this legislation to discriminate against Hispanics in Texas and to run contrary to the policies set out by the Voting Rights Act.  The Department of Justice repeatedly asked Texas to document with evidence the assertion that the Voter ID Act would not adversely impact the ability of citizens to vote.  Attorney General Abbott, who was leading the fight on the effort, failed after repeated requests to offer any evidence that the measure would not adversely impact voter participation in Texas.

Apparently, considerable inquiry has been made as to the facts since the passage of the legislation.  It now appears there are approximately 177,000 Hispanic voters in Texas who do not have the type ID required by the bill in order to exercise their citizen's right to vote.  Rejection of the measure apparently means citizens of Texas will be able to vote without paying the price of obtaining a Texas driver’s license or official ID card.

In my opinion, the Department of Justice has done the right thing in striking down this measure which adversely affects citizens of Texas’ right to participate in elections.  The whole matter of forcing citizens to seek some sort of official paper documenting their citizenship is reminiscent of the pre-WWII era when citizens of various totalitarian states such as Germany and Italy were required to have government papers in order to traverse the byways of their country freely or to engage in day-to-day business. 

It seems to me the sponsors of this legislation simply yearn for what they remember as the “good ole days” when Texans were required to pay a tax (poll tax) in order to exercise their right to vote.