The lone gubernatorial debate between Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic opponent, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, took place Friday (Sept. 28) in Austin.
If that description sounds wooden, it is. Abbott offered to appear with the lady sheriff once, on a night when many Texans would be at high school football games, to show he wasn't scared to meet with her. But once is it.
Abbott wanted to brag on the state during his watch, and avoid any big fights. He accomplished that.
He's got way more campaign cash than Valdez. He's already spent more than $10 million, and has about three times that much still to spend. Valdez's spending may not top $1 million.
Abbott didn't push any huge issues against Valdez. In responding to the press panel's questions, Valdez tried to raise some issues, but Abbott largely ducked them.
Perhaps the biggest issue she raised against Abbott, and by extension Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was the priority both have put on holding down local property tax increases.
Valdez blamed Abbott for the state not paying its fair share on public education, and health care, and "pushing the burden down" to local property taxpayers.
The whole business of property taxes, how to clamp down on them, and who's responsible for their rise, can be hard to understand, because it's pretty complicated.
Basically, the state is shirking its funding responsibility on public schools. Several decades ago, the state paid 80 percent, and local districts 20 percent.
Now, the state contribution has dropped over the past decade from 48 percent to 38 percent, and is headed lower.
A very good explanation of how the state evades avoids paying its share, while Abbott and Patrick call for limiting the percentage increases local governments can have on the property tax, was provided recently by one of the most thoughtful, solution-oriented Texas legislators, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, in his email newsletter for constituents, Watson Wire.
Some folks at the State Capitol talk a lot about reducing your property taxes. They act all heroic, but it’s the state that’s really the big problem. Yeah, they talk out of both sides of their mouth.
Last week, the Texas Education Agency reported on what it thinks will be its budget needs next session. Here’s the big news: TEA expects that local property taxpayers will be picking up an even-greater share of the cost of public schools, so TEA needs about $3.8 billion less in state money.
Keep that in mind when you hear promises of property tax relief. School property taxes account for more than half of your property tax bill, and the state is banking on your school property taxes going up as property values increase.
That, in turn, saves the state money. Dickering with city and county tax rates makes it sound like the Legislature is doing something to provide “relief,” but that approach will do very little to actually reduce your property taxes.
This isn’t new. The current budget (2018-2019) counted on increases in local property values of about 7% per year. The state’s share of the school funding formula at the end of this biennium will only be about 38% of the total. Under this latest proposal, it would drop into the lower 30’s by 2021.
Some folks have been tying themselves into knots to argue that the state is pulling its full weight, even claiming that the state should get credit for the billions of property tax dollars collected on the local level as part of Robin Hood.
They also argue that the fault for rising school property taxes lies at the feet of local school boards, not the Legislature. But the Legislature has created a complicated system that deters local school boards from lowering their tax rates and the state reaps the benefit.
Gov. Abbott has floated a plan to cap additional tax revenue that local school districts could raise at 2.5 percent. But if the state expects that property values will rise almost 7 percent each year over the next two years, how do we make up the difference? Does the Legislature put in about $4 billion more in state money? Or cut that amount from schools?
The Texas Commission on Public School Finance is supposed to offer a plan forward after months of hearings and debate. We’ll see.
Thanks, Sen. Watson.
Whether the state's shirking of what should be its responsibility to pay more of the bill for public schools catches on as an issue with voters remains to be seen.
But Valdez owes a thank-you note to Sen. Watson for explaining it better than just about any officeholder so far.