The Texas Legislature’s high-profile stalemate over property tax reform means newspapers will remain the primary source of public notices for tax hearings and rates — for now, at least.
Property tax reform — like several other high-profile issues considered by the Texas Legislature in the special session — died recently when the House and Senate adjourned without reaching a compromise on Senate Bill 1.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who listed tax reform as one of his highest priorities, has not ruled out another special session to consider the issue.
The original version of SB 1 would have gutted public notice as we know it. Texas Press Association member publishers and the association’s legislative team successfully lobbied for an amendment preserving newspapers’ important role in public notice, however.
The original version by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would have made newspapers merely one of three public notice options available to property-taxing entities. A second option would be to mail a notice to each taxpayer — an alternative already allowed under state law but rarely if ever used because of the expense. The new third option would have been for a governmental entity to simply post its property tax notices on its website, bypassing newspapers and mail altogether.
TPA maintained that the idea of posting a notice only on a government website has serious flaws:
• A governmental body could easily hide a tax hearing notice or a notice of a new tax rate deep inside a website to avoid drawing attention to it.
• Few taxpayers read governmental websites, and millions of Texans without internet access don’t have the capability to do so. Others elect not to get their information via websites and prefer traditional newspaper notice.
• Governments have a duty to taxpayers to actively inform them of tax rate hearings and rate changes rather than leaving them to find notices on their own by searching a government website
• The original proposal would put the burden on taxpayers to follow the website of each tax assessing entity to stay informed about tax changes.
• The independent third-party verification and archiving provided via newspaper notice keeps the tax rate process honest and transparent.
Sen. Bettencourt listened to our concerns and pushed through a floor amendment restoring current requirements for either newspaper or mail notice. Further, a governmental entity using newspaper notice would also be required to post the notice on its governmental website. Small taxing entities would have been exempted from the website requirement.
Many thanks to all TPA members who contacted their state senators about the problems with original version of SB 1. Once again, the involvement of TPA members made a positive difference, and the bill that emerged was more fair to Texas taxpayers.
Tax reform is virtually certain to be an issue again, either in a second special session or in the regular 2019 session of the legislature. TPA members and staff must continue working hard to help lawmakers understand the importance of newspaper notice in keeping taxpayers informed.
Donnis Baggett is executive vice president of the Texas Press Association. He lobbies for open records, open meetings and public notices by government.