The recent Texas legislative session was mostly good with a little bad thrown in for taxpayers interested in holding their elected officials accountable.
First, the good — and there was a lot that went right. Several measures that passed this session have fixed public access loopholes that developed over the last four years.
One new law explicitly requires municipal governments to disclose information about contracts paid for by taxpayer dollars, including for government-funded concerts or other public events. Another provides legal consequences for public officials who try to hide public information by storing it on their smartphone or other personal device. Yet another prohibits “walking quorums,” where public officials speak with each other in a series of small, private groups and arrive at a decision that way instead of where the public can hear at a regular meeting.
These are all signs that lawmakers are heeding the public’s call for transparency and accountability in their government.
One change, though, is concerning.
Donnis Baggett of the Texas Press Association described it as a “Memorial Day weekend sneak attack on public notice.”
It’s a little complicated, but essentially, a committee lawmakers used the process of smoothing out the difference between versions the House and Senate approved of Senate Bill 2, the much-discussed property tax reform bill, to insert an entirely new section eliminating the requirement that community colleges, emergency service districts and hospital districts publish a notice in the newspaper of their final tax rates. Instead, most of that information will have to be posted to the taxing entity’s website.
So rather than having access to all local tax information in one obvious place, either in print editions or in the public notices section of a newspaper’s website, taxpayers will be forced to find and explore multiple websites to find the final property tax rate for each taxing entity in their area.
Do you trust yourself to remember when tax season rolls around to check, for example, the website of the Hunt County Memorial Hospital District, any utility district you might live in, and other local taxing entities?
Should you even have to search that hard to find out what your tax rates are? Legislators apparently think so.
“Some might even note the irony that the title of SB 2 is ‘The Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act of 2019,’ yet without newspaper notice, SB 2 makes final tax rates less transparent than they are today,” Baggett wrote in an analysis of the legislature’s moves related to public access.
The procedure the lawmakers on the committee took was entirely legal, but we question whether they honored taxpayers’ needs in the process.
They put other members of the legislature in a bind, too.
“Republican legislators — even those close to their hometown papers — dared not vote against a much-ballyhooed tax reform bill that was one of the GOP’s highest priorities,” Baggett explained.
Hunt County’s state lawmaker in the House, state Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), was among the majority who voted in favor of the final version. State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) also voted for the Senate’s final version of the bill earlier this month.
Over the next year and a half, legislators will be seeking support for reelection in 2021. Now’s the time to let them know you support efforts to protect your right to know how your taxes are being spent. Tell them you aren’t happy the requirement for public notice was changed without public input.
And in the meantime, consider telling your special taxing districts, too, that you still want to see their tax rate notices in the same place you’ve found them before.