DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Here it is, weeks after the Texas Legislature shut down for the next year and a half, and I can’t get these numbers out of my mind.

185. 83. 1485. 878.

They aren’t my lottery picks. These numbers belong to House bills that, if passed, would have gone a long way towards fixing our broken property tax system. Real reforms.

These are the bills I loved that died.

Instead, we have a new property tax law, already in effect, that is half-baked. The appraisal system will get standardized across the state. You’ll receive more information on your taxes and what you pay. You’ll even have a chance, in elections, to lower the boom on big government tax increases.

But your taxes won’t drop enough to notice.

I tried to look at the positive in my recent summary of its benefits — “Breaking it down: This is how the new Texas property tax law affects you.”

But I can’t go on pretending that this is some grand achievement. The grand achievement bills are the dead ones I can’t stop thinking about.

483. 1444. 1551. 1703.

These bills would have brought greater fairness to a terrible system.

The Watchdog wondered what went wrong with these bills. How did they die? And why?

Lucky 13

One bill I loved would have made sales prices public, eliminating a lot of the guesswork in appraisals. Others would have lowered the 10% limit allowed for a maximum annual increase in taxable value down to 5%.

One wanted to help Texans 65 and older, their surviving spouses and disabled people with an across-the-board tax freeze, not just school taxes, but city, county, hospital and college districts, too.

Another bill promoted elections to pick a chief appraiser, making that crucial job more responsive to the public.

The Watchdog reached out to 13 lucky lawmakers who offered these idealistic bills. Told their staffers that their dead bills would, in this space, get one more gasp of life. Six cared enough to talk.

The crucial player wouldn’t talk. I noticed in my postmortem examination of bills I loved that died that most passed away in the same place — the meeting room of the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax bills.

Chairman Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, ushered the new tax law through the House, but not those bills I loved that died.

This week, his spokesman told me he was busy at work and unable to talk to The Watchdog.

‘A bandwidth thing’

Instead, I talked to someone on his committee. State Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, offered a bill that would have imposed term limits on members of appraisal review boards.

“The complaint I received from constituents is that the good old boy environment starts to impair,” he said. “When somebody is on the board for a long period of time, they start developing solid relationships with staff, and their independence seems to deteriorate over time.”

Even though he was on the committee that handles tax bills, he couldn’t move his bill out.

“It was a bandwidth thing,” he said. There’s only so much space. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to make a determination where we’re going to spend our time.”

I asked the Republican if stronger reform bills didn’t get passed because leadership — governor, House speaker and lieutenant governor — didn’t want to go that far in making substantial changes.

He answered that unlike recent House sessions that operated top-down, this year’s was the opposite. Members drove the agenda more, he said.

“Our constituents wanted real property tax relief,” he said. “It just so happened that the top three glommed onto that and led.”

‘A leadership thing’

It’s no surprise that a Democrat disagrees. Rookie state Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, offered a bill freezing all property taxes for seniors and disabled persons.

It died in the ... well, you know.

The idea behind the bill came from a public policy and urban planning class he taught at San Antonio College. His students believed a total freeze would protect the most vulnerable and help them keep their homes.

“I went to committee members, but nobody wanted to vote on it,” he said.

“Why is that?” he was asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “We think, honestly, it was coming from the top. They had their Senate Bill 2 thing going on” — that’s the tax bill that passed — “and they didn’t want any other bills like this interfering. That’s my gut feeling.

“Nobody told me, but you can somehow get a sense on the House floor. They’ve got one direction they’re going on, and they’re not listening to anything else at that point. I think it’s a leadership thing.”

‘Try again’

Two other rookies, like Pacheco, tried to go big in tax reform, but they were stopped at the front door.

Freshman state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, offered a bill trying to fix a loophole that allows commercial properties to pay less in taxes, percentage wise, of a property’s true value when compared to what homeowners pay.

Michelle Beckley

Michelle Beckley

She also offered a bill making sales prices public.

“A lot of people think a freshman carrying these big bills is odd,” she said. “Things do move really slow in the statehouse.”

Freshman Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, offered a bill that would have based the appraised value of a property on a five-year average.

Jared Patterson

Jared Patterson

He lobbied the Ways and Means chairman, he said. “Ways and Means was obviously pretty busy.”

What’s next?

Patterson says he’ll try again next time. Same goes for the others.

“I’m going to try again,” Pacheco said. “Faster and smarter. Maybe I’m going to make some noise.”

Sounds good, except for that word “maybe.” No maybe. Just make the darn noise.

1977. 2008. 1816.

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