Analysis: A quick turn on property taxes with the long game in mind

Private and public housing across North Austin on Oct. 9, 2020.

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Property taxes are higher in Texas than in all but a handful of other states. Voters know that, and when voters are interested, so are the people who depend on those voters for political survival.

That’s why, in less than six hours on Monday, Texas legislators went all the way from a blank piece of paper to unanimous support for a constitutional amendment that would increase the size of the homeowner’s exemption on property taxes to $40,000 from the current $25,000.

It won’t move the state lower on the overall list — only five other states have higher property taxes than we do, according to the Tax Foundation. That stat doesn’t get a lot of attention from Texas officials, who are busy telling corporate executives in California and other states about the benefits of living in a state that doesn’t have a personal income tax.

That’s enticing, and one reason Texas is a magnet right now for personal and corporate relocations. It’s also why property taxes are so high and why the state has the 14th-highest state and local sales taxes in the U.S., according to the Tax Foundation.

But the homeowner’s exemption increase is expensive: It would cost the state almost $2 billion over the next five years. That’s big in the state’s eye, but it would put an average of only $176 back in the pocket of the average homeowner each year. It would reduce what local school property taxes would collect for public education and assumes, but does not guarantee, that the state will make up what the school districts lose with other taxes collected by the state.

Even with those caveats, here’s betting that, in political advertising next year, some lawmakers will be touting the “billions of dollars of property tax breaks” they put in place in this most recent legislative session.

It’s a straight-up bid for homeowners who vote. It doesn’t do anything for renters or for commercial and industrial property owners in the way that a cut in property tax rates would be. A broader cut would affect all property owners — and, if you’re a real optimist, might also trickle down to the people who rent from them — but spreading the cut to more owners would also cut the size each owner gets.

If voters approve this constitutional amendment next year, homeowners will each get an average of $14.67 a month, and that’s assuming that it’s even visible to those taxpayers in a time of rising property values and steadily increasing tax bills.

It’s probably good for political ads, but that monthly total won’t buy lunch for a family of four.

The legislation flew through the Legislature, after the House and Senate had approved very different property tax breaks earlier in the third special session. On Monday morning, this was just an idea. By Monday evening, it was on its way to the May ballot, where voters will decide whether it belongs in the state Constitution or the scrap heap.

That’s a testament to the political clout of property taxes. It’s one of those issues of interest to regular voters — the ones who don’t pay attention to the everyday barking of partisan officeholders and their underlings. And it got some recent notice from pollsters at the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote about its persistence as a sore spot for the state’s voters. (Their earlier polling also holds a caution for legislators: Small tax cuts like this one, they wrote, aren’t enough to make a difference to most families.)

Four years ago, Texas voters were clear enough about their displeasure over high property taxes that several safe statewide incumbents — including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner — just got by on Election Day. And in the legislative session that followed in 2019, state leaders set aside culture issues that enliven political activists in favor of school finance and property tax cuts.

They were scared, and it showed.

This year, the Legislature zipped through a long conservative wish list, adding new laws allowing most adults to carry guns without licenses, banning abortions after the first five or six weeks of pregnancy, restricting election practices that made voting easier during the pandemic, preventing transgender athletes in public schools from competing on teams that match their gender identities, and so on.

Those were wins for Republicans, but they wanted to touch one more base on the way out, blowing homeowners a kiss and hoping that was enough to keep the property tax rebellion at bay.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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