Adler: Resist lawmakers’ distractions from broken property tax system

Property tax bills are going up way too much in Austin — but there’s a lot of confusion as to why.

Get ready to be surprised. The city of Austin has the lowest property tax rate among Texas’ largest cities — by a wide margin.

Ours is 45 cents per $100 of home property value. Next closest are San Antonio at 56 cents and Houston at 59 cents, followed by Dallas at 79 cents and Fort Worth at 84 cents.

VIEWPOINTS: Legislature should end illusion and provide real tax cuts.

But wait! If the city of Austin’s property tax rate is so low, why are property taxes going up so much? In fact, the owner of a median-value Austin home will be paying $1,484 more next year than just four years ago.

Ready to be surprised again? Of that $1,484 total increase, a huge, honking majority — $1,023 — is local dollars being “recaptured,” or effectively taxed out of our community by the state to subsidize its broken school finance system. That increase is 70 percent of the total property tax increase you have been feeling. It’s the state!

The Austin school district assessment has two parts: the part the district gets to keep and the part that gets passed through to the state.

Four years ago, the state only took $355 in property taxes from the average Austin homeowner — a third of what the city of Austin took. Three years ago, the state’s take rose to $512, or about half of what the city of Austin got in property taxes. But next year, Texas will take $1,378 — more local property tax dollars than the city of Austin will collect.

To be clear, a school finance system that includes some measure of local capture is both fair and required. But as Texas courts have held, by taking so much from us and not leaving Austin enough money fairly to educate our disproportionately large disadvantaged student population, Texas overtaxes Austin.

COMMENTARY: Dan Patrick says cities ruin America. Come see Georgetown.

The state’s huge and growing share of our property taxes is not a local property tax — and it’s certainly not a tax to pay for our local schools. Let’s be honest, and from this day forward call it what it is: a state property tax. If the Texas Legislature really wanted to lower our property taxes, they would fix our broken school finance system — but that’s the one thing they’re not doing. This forces us to find creative solutions to a problem we didn’t create but are being blamed for.

Instead of giving us real property tax relief, state leaders are waging a war on cities. They keep sticking us with their rising taxes while distracting us with bills telling people which bathroom to use, ordering our police chiefs around, and even micromanaging our arborist — a rare case of horticulture by proxy. They even want to tell us how to spend our own money, promising with a straight face that approving a property tax cap will deliver property tax relief, even though it would amount to only about $2 a month. Really.

This war on cities is a defining moment for Austin, the state and our country. Austin is at the epicenter of several precedent-setting battles that will have impact on our city, state and country for decades to come.

The lieutenant governor is trying to make the war on cities about partisan politics, even to the point of accusing Democratic mayors of causing — and I’m not kidding about this — “all our problems in America.” Partisan politics is the problem in Washington and at the Texas Legislature, but that’s not how cities work. There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole. I work with everyone — regardless of party or persuasion — to set priorities and to solve problems, which is why I love this job.

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Texas mayors are all like this. We all love our cities and our state. Our cities are driving the state’s economy and incubating our future, and we know that Texas is stronger when mayors work together and with state leaders. But mayors can’t fix the broken Texas school finance system. Only the Legislature can — and until that happens, our property tax bills will continue to rise.

If our state leaders really want to do something about our rising property taxes, stop with the name-calling, political pandering and cheap distractions. Do your job. Fix our broken school finance system, so that taxpayers don’t continue to see their property tax bills grow out of control. Fix or cap the state property tax.

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