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District 54 candidates on property tax reform

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This week, the Herald asked the Texas House District 54 candidates their plans to enact property tax reform if they are elected. The candidates included Republic incumbent Rep. Scott Cosper, Killeen veterinarian Dr. Brad Buckley and veteran Larry Smith, and Democrat Kathy Richerson.

Here are the questions and their responses, in full.

Q: A number of plans were floated throughout the 85th Texas Legislature to “fix” the state property tax system. Generally, what changes, if any, do you support in the state’s property tax system?

Buckley: As I travel around House District 54, citizens reinforce that the number one concern is the unfair property tax system. Landowners, business owners, homeowners, and renters all seek property tax predictability and fairness. Voters are seeking an open and honest legislative debate that leads to solutions and financial relief. Citizens and business owners in Killeen and Harker Heights opened their Notice of Appraised Value statement and were again shocked by the unprecedented increases, some increasing by staggering amounts.

I will fight for genuine changes to the property tax system, while driving more dollars to classrooms and paying teachers the salaries they deserve. Meaningful property tax reform must tackle an unpredictable appraisal system and include comprehensive school finance reform, given that school taxes are the majority of our tax bill. The system must be more transparent and user friendly for property owners by requiring an easy to understand notice of a “No New Revenue Tax Rate.” This will allow tax payers to understand the impact rising appraisals are having on their tax bill and allow them the opportunity to petition those elected officials closest to them.

Cosper: Reducing property taxes is on the top of my priority list, and I am pushing three solutions that will cut property taxes.

First, local school property taxes comprise the largest portion of your property tax bill by far. To reduce them, we need to restructure the school finance system, so the state picks up a bigger share of the tab and local homeowners see major relief on their property tax bills. Last session, I helped advance Governor Abbott’s priority item to establish a commission to restructure school finance. The commission will finish its work before the next legislative session, when we can enact the reforms and reduce local school property taxes.

Second, I believe in appraisal reform and appraisal caps. We need to improve accountability and stop the unfair practice of big increases in appraisals. I filed a bill during the 85th special session to accomplish this, and plan to work with House colleagues to build a coalition for this kind of reform going into the next session.

Third, I was twice able to pass legislation through the House to expand the state’s property tax reimbursement to military communities to include both Harker Heights and Lampasas. These funds help to offset the impact of disabled veteran homestead exemptions, which reduces the burden on local property tax payers. We are making great progress and I will keep fighting to advance these tax cuts and reforms.

Smith: The property tax limit which Governor Abbott pushed forward into special session in August failed. The reason there needs to be a cap is that while politicians often brag about how low property taxes are compared to the rest of the country there is nothing in place to prevent them from skyrocketing.

For instance, here in Bell County, after KISD pushes its bond (and related city bonds) package there will be a $200some increase per household for the bond maintenance and the as yet unannounced budget increase will be another $200some per household for the maintenance and overhead of the schools being built. From 10 years ago, each household in Killeen (that qualifies) pays $1000 more a year than they did in property taxes.

Richerson: I didn’t see anything impressive in the 85th.

Do you support laws that would limit local jurisdictions’ ability to raise property taxes — including a possible measure to mandate mandatory rollback elections when property tax increases reach a certain level? Any other measures?

Buckley: First, let me address the issue of limiting our local jurisdictions ability to respond to local needs. I believe that true local control, where taxpayers and their local officials have the closest relationships, is the best way to ensure that the taxpayers are treated fairly, their money spent wisely, and their local needs met.

The issue involving mandatory rollback elections failed to receive honest and vigorous debate during the last session and I am ready to have this debate. We must safeguard against the unintended consequences of power being centralized and taken away from our local officials. As local citizens, we must engage our schools, cities, and counties and hold our local leaders accountable.

As a state level elected official, I will fight to make sure that unfunded mandates do not burden our local entities with unnecessary regulation and cost.

Cosper: Yes, we need to enact common sense limitations at the local level to protect property taxpayers. In addition, this needs to be paired with a reduction in costly, unfunded mandates.

For too long, the state and federal governments have heaped one mandate after another on local governments without any money to pay for them. This puts the burden squarely on the backs of local taxpayers, and that is wrong.

Smith: Yes. But with a rollback all you would have is a constant move to hit the limit and then taper back or just float just shy of the rollback limit and push a stop-gap measure like a bond. This would do nothing to ensure tax dollars are being spent efficiently.

Richerson: I strongly oppose the Governor or the legislature interfering with duly elected local taxing authorities.

In Harker Heights, the practices of the Bell County Appraisal District were under fire after property appraisal increases reached as high as 5,000 percent in 2017. What measures, if any, do you support to increase the efficiency and accuracy of county appraisal districts and do you support more control over those districts’ appraisal practices?

Buckley: During many conversations with our friends and neighbors in Harker Heights, Killeen and Nolanville, citizens and voters underscored the same burden: an unexpected, unpredictable, and skyrocketing increase in appraised values.

I believe we all should be able to expect predictability of our tax burden. Tax appraisal districts must utilize best practices and all technology at their disposal to provide fair, accurate, and predictable valuations. A system that tolerates increases like those seen during recent years — highlighted again in 2017 — unduly burdens taxpayers with expensive and time-consuming appeals, contests, and legal fees.

Taxpayers understand that the value of their property will rise over time. In fact, many benefit from the appreciation of their property. However, predictability, consistency, and fairness must tailor local appraisals to reasonable levels.

Cosper: Shortly after taking office, I personally spoke at a hearing of the Bell County Appraisal District and was highly critical of the property appraisal increases and the flawed appraisal process. I then working on legislative solutions to reform the appraisal process. I filed a bill during the 85th special session to place new caps on appraisal increases, and am building a coalition of support to advance it during the next legislative session.

We also need greater transparency and accountability during the appraisal process to protect taxpayers.

Smith: Lock in the rates until date of sale or improvement. When you purchase a property the tax rate is based on the market value. Well then why does the value arbitrarily increase when the home is not on the market? With this you would pay the same taxes each year for the entire time you own the home. This will allow you to budget and force local government to spend money more efficiently.

Looking at you Mr. Scoreboard.

Richerson: I have had nothing but positive interactions with local officials. There are appeals processes in case of errors and they answer directly to voters.

Q: Recently there has been discussion on bringing new property tax exemptions up for constitutional amendment votes, including for Purple Heart recipients. Killeen and Harker Heights have a sizable military population – do you support expanding state-mandated property tax exemptions for certain veterans? If so, do you support increasing the money cities like Harker Heights and Killeen receive from the state for offering those exemptions? What aid should the state offer, if any, for communities that are disproportionately affected by these exemptions?

Buckley: The Great State of Texas exists because of the contributions, service, and sacrifice of our veterans and active duty military. In fact, I cannot imagine my hometown without my friends, colleagues, and associates that arrived here to serve at The Great Place.

Because our fine veterans and active duty service members deliver across boundaries — state, national, and international — expansions of property tax exemptions must be coupled with lock-step state funding to offset disproportionately impacted communities. My service on the Killeen ISD Board of Trustees required finding positive solutions to the challenges brought forth by property tax exemptions. For example, the school board fought for Impact Aid, a payment made to offset the property tax exemption given to federal government property. This approach allowed for communities heavily impacted by these exemptions to be made whole.

The state of Texas must consider a similar system for each exemption expansion. As a school board member, I helped lead the fight to make our local systems whole. As your state representative in the legislature, I will use this experience to win this fight so that our schools and communities can provide the services that our veterans and active duty military service members deserve.

We want to honor these folks and encourage veterans to be Texans. I will fight to make sure the communities affected by these state laws are made whole and not overburdened.

Our veterans sacrificed dearly for us. Now, all Texans must sacrifice for them.

Cosper: As a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, I fought to increase the state reimbursement to military communities by 30%, from $5 million to $6.5 million. I also twice passed a bill through the House to expand the state reimbursement for disabled veteran homestead exemptions to include Harker Heights and Lampasas.

These efforts were honored by the City of Harker Heights with a city proclamation, for which I was grateful and humbled. I was also named the Most Powerful First Term Representative by a Texas news journal, for my ability to pass important legislation for our district. Our reimbursement legislation did not clear the senate before the legislative deadline, but we are making great progress. With the continued help of our local community leaders, we will continue to advance and pass this legislation. As a result, we will bring additional state dollars to military communities, which will provide needed benefits to our veterans and also reduce the burden on local taxpayers.

Smith: Creating special interest groups is bad government. As a Purple Heart recipient measures like this would save my family thousands of dollars and I still think it is a bad idea.

This is why we need to move more towards a system where a sales tax is a larger percentage of the tax base and more accurately reflects the economic health of an area. For example, Bell County gets 1% of the sales from 8.25% that is charged. If we raised the county share .25% and reduced the share to the state by .25% it would result in $6 million additional dollars to the Bell County budget and no one would pay more in taxes.

The core issue with our property taxes as a whole is that local government never has to spend money efficiently if it knows it can always go back to the trough for more. The reason it will not get fixed is that too many politicians and their businesses directly benefit from the spending of tax dollars generated by property taxes.

Richerson: I always support our veterans who were wounded in the line of duty, but I doubt the state is going to reimburse us. | 254-501-7567

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