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Dave Lieber

When I look at the 2019 Texas Legislature, I see a three-ring circus. But it’s not what you think.

In the center ring is property tax reform, an issue that affects everyone who owns a house or pays rent to a landlord.

I’ve studied the new property tax “reform” bill speeding through the Legislature. Lawmakers can call it “reform” but it’s more like a declaration of war against cities and counties.

Your tax bill won’t shrink, and I’ll show you why.

In a side ring is a roofer’s registration bill to curb the criminal element from pretending they are roofers when they’re actually swindlers. This has been an issue for more than 40 years. Yet I’ll wager that this is the year for success. I’ll show you why.

The third ring of the circus showcases The Watchdog’s multi-year campaign to persuade state leaders to fix the electricity shopping system by eliminating marketing deceptions favored by electricity companies.

That ring is dark. Nothing happening. All I see are some leftover sad clowns dressed as state utility commissioners.

Property tax letdown

How does the property tax bill state lawmakers placed on a fast track affect your pocketbook?

Basic fact: The proposal doesn’t cut taxes, it only slows the rate of growth.

If it becomes law as written, anytime a city, county, school district or other taxing entity wants to raise property taxes too much, voters would have to approve the proposed tax increase in a November election.

That alone sounds very fair. But the percentage growth that triggers an election, as picked by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, is a nasty number.

Only 2.5 percent.

If a government wants to raise taxes above 2.5 percent in a year on existing properties, then there’s an election.

That’s a low bar. I can see 4 or 6 percent, but 2.5 doesn’t leave a lot of room for growth, for emergencies and most of all, for inflation. Cities, counties and school districts would be handcuffed, especially since community tax protests may grow louder in coming years. Finding a majority of approving voters may get harder.

There’s another big flaw in the proposed bill. It would only apply to the state’s largest cities and counties.

My colleague Rebekah Allen reports that small governments collecting less than $15 million in sales tax and property tax revenue a year would be exempt. Why? How else would rural lawmakers support the bill?

They take an already convoluted, unfair and arbitrary system and add components that don’t apply to rural Texans.

Shouldn’t it be uniform statewide?

Much of the bill is good.

The silly-named “effective rate” (the level at which taxes would collect the same amount as the year before) would change to a more understandable “no-new-revenue” tax rate.

Tax proposal notices you receive would include more information, including names and contact information of elected officials who set rates (so you know whom to complain to).

The bill standardizes the tax protest system with manuals and training procedures for appraisal review board members and arbitrators, to be created by the state comptroller’s office.

Tax information must be prominently displayed on each government website’s home page.

Now it’s often difficult to find.

Roofing registration next?

Back in 1997, the state Senate passed a roofers’ licensing bill, but the House didn’t go along. Think of all the crimes that could have been prevented.

Texas is the only Gulf Coast state without some kind of roofers’ and contractors’ oversight.

Here, contractors will continue to go unlicensed. A roofers’ license could never pass through the supposed anti-regulators who run state government.

The bill proposal floating around the state Capitol — not yet introduced — calls for a weaker roofers’ registration system for re-roofers, also known as storm chasers. Applicants would have to pay $250 to be listed on the state website.

Roofers wouldn’t be allowed to pull permits from local governments to do work without a registration number. Other parts include a code of ethics and criminal penalties for violators.

Dallas insurance lawyer Steve Badger is running point on this mission.

He say he’s working with roofing associations, the insurance industry and consumer groups.

Why could this be the year? Two words: Hurricane Harvey.

Also, the roofing industry is organized. The first “Roofers’ Days” at the Legislature are set for Feb. 26-27. Roofers who want protections from bad ones will talk to lawmakers.

The Roofing Contractors Association of Texas has a website with more information about how you can contact lawmakers. Visit SafeRoofsOverTexas.com.

One more reason why it could pass: The Texas Department of Insurance sees a need. In TDI’s report to the Legislature, officials refer to “concerns about roofing and contractor scams from consumers, agents, the media and other stakeholders.”

The report lists flaws in the system including roofers who waive deductibles illegally, who take down payments and disappear, who do shoddy work or who don’t honor warranties.

The report makes no recommendations but mentions possible solutions.

Dark third ring

The (Public) Utility Commission (I symbolically took away its first name) could do the same and list the flaws in its overall system — well beyond the state’s troubled PowerToChoose.org website. At least acknowledge the many loopholes that electricity companies have created and note possible improvements. Still waiting.

Instead, as I reported in my previous column, the UC attacked the messenger rather than heed the message I delivered on behalf of thousands of Texans who tired of the tricks and gimmicks electricity companies use to get you to pay more.

My open records request to the UC shows that their spokesman, in a note to his superiors, called The Watchdog “an unprincipled, self-promoting huckster.”

Spokesman Andrew P. Barlow, a publicly paid state employee, wanted to organize a counter campaign with electricity companies to promote the “values they uphold.”

He also wrote his superiors that he feared I might take the petition I gathered with the names of hundreds of supporters to a public meeting, act disruptive and get dragged out by state police. He made that up.

That third circus ring, even though it’s about electricity, is dark.

Darkness means many Texans will pay more than necessary for electricity.

What’s that old circus phrase? A sucker born every minute.

Announcement: Come to my fun Watchdog Nation training session on Saturday, Feb. 16, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Interabang Books, 10720 Preston Road, Dallas.

I’ll show you how to scam-proof your life and give you a Watchdog Nation membership card.

No reservations required. Free parking.

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