With one of the focuses of the upcoming legislative session on school finance reform, the idea of property tax caps may come up again. Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, are both against the idea.
Seliger said he was the only Republican who voted against the tax caps last time.
“They represent big government. They represent the fact that property taxes are the way local governments fund their activity. They represent state dictating to local government officials. Every election is a property tax election,” Seliger said.
Every time people vote for an elected official, they’re voting for someone who can raise or lower their taxes.
Seliger noted that school districts are already limited in the property taxes they can levy by statute.
Landgraf said he hasn’t seen any proposed legislation yet.
“If it’s anything like the proposal that came out in 2017, the idea is that local taxing entities would have a cap on the effective tax rate from one year to the next. That threshold is currently at 8 percent. The proposal in 2017 would have lowered that threshold from 8 percent to 4 percent … meaning that a taxing entity couldn’t raise the effective tax rate more than 4 percent from one year to the next without triggering an automatic rollback election,” Landgraf said.
“There seems to be, and I certainly agree with Gov. (Greg) Abbott, that property tax relief and school finance reform are intertwined. I don’t think you can have one without the other. I think a lot of our state leaders, and a lot of my fellow legislators, are looking at this issue as a single problem that has to be addressed,” Landgraf added.
Seliger said the school finance system is old and out of date.
“And it’s not working anymore. The taxpayers in Midland ISD have spent half a billion in support of other districts. We need a different system,” Seliger said.
He added that school districts receive 37 percent of their funding from the state and it needs to go back to 50 percent. Seliger said that would reduce recapture where wealthier school districts give part of their tax revenue back to the state to go to poorer districts.
Asked about how to make up for the revenue difference if property tax caps were enacted, Landgraf agreed with Seliger that the state needs to increase its share of funding to schools.
“I’ve been looking at generating savings through a Medicaid block grant program to generate savings for the state, so those savings could be applied to fund public education to a greater degree on the state level which would relieve that burden on local ISDs (independent school districts) and local property taxpayers,” Landgraf said.
He said there have been conversations about swapping property taxes for sales taxes. Because it’s a consumption tax, Landgraf said he thinks that would be fairer.
“I’m not ready to commit to making that swap. I think that there are some other better options where we can increase funding for public education while reducing property taxes and not increasing taxes anywhere else. That’s what I’m on track to do, but there have been some conversations about increasing sales tax to pay for education as long it coincides with a (reduction) of property taxes,” he said.
Landgraf has previously filed legislation to repeal recapture, commonly called Robin Hood. And he thinks the political will might be there to pass it this session, which begins Jan. 8.
“I’m more confident about it than I have been since in the four years that I’ve been serving in the legislature. And one reason why is if we are going to have a fundamental overhaul of the way that we fund public schools, there’s a very unique opportunity to do away with Robin Hood in the process,” Landgraf said.
Ector County ISD and Andrews ISD are facing teacher shortages, as is every school district in West Texas.
“One reason why that’s the case is that they can’t afford to recruit and retain teachers in an area that has an astronomically high cost of living. When apartment rents are through the roof, when gasoline prices are higher in the Permian Basin than they are in other parts of the state you need to pay those who aren’t making oilfield salaries a little bit more than you otherwise would so they can afford to live in that community,” Landgraf said.
One of Seliger’s priorities this session is to make individual graduation committees permanent because the law is about to sunset.
Senate Bill 149 revised the state’s assessment graduation requirements for students enrolled in the 11th or 12th grade for the 2014-2015, 2015-2016, or 2016-2017 school years, the Texas Education Agency website said.
A student who has failed the end of course assessment graduation requirements for no more than two courses may receive a Texas high school diploma if the student has qualified to graduate by means of an individual graduation committee (IGC) determination, the site said.
“It’s had tremendously positive impact,” Seliger said.
He added that school security, mental health observation and counseling in the school setting to identify students who might have potential problems that could lead to violence in the schools and what can be done about it also are issues to tackle.
Landgraf said he also plans to file a bill to repeal the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam “as we know it.”
“I’m a firm believer that public schools need to be held accountable,” Landgraf said.
He added that as long as schools are using taxpayer dollars, the public has a right to know how well they’re performing.
“I just think there are better ways to evaluate the accountability of schools than by looking at the results of a standardized test,” Landgraf said.
He said it also ties the hands of teachers because they’re teaching to a test and putting “unnecessary stress on students.”
He said schools can be measured by how well they prepare students to enter college, the workforce or military.