Imagine a Texas without property taxes. Every October, you, a Texas homeowner, await your annual property tax bill, not with trepidation, but with joy. Behold, there before you is what you must render unto Caesar. Zero dollars and zero cents. And yet there is, miraculously, still money for schools, for roads, for prisons. “Thanks, Greg Abbott,” you sigh softly. “Hail Caesar!”
Does this seem like a fantasy? If it is an idle daydream, it is one with surprising currency at the Capitol these days. What used to be a fringe libertarian concept—abolish property taxes and stop “renting from the government”—is now discussed by many top politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, as a matter of when, not if. Foremost among the abolitionists is Governor Greg Abbott.
Recently Abbott has been talking up plans to wipe out all property taxes: all school property taxes and all taxes levied by cities, counties, community colleges, emergency service districts, flood districts, hospital districts, and many other local entities that provide essential services. “What we want to achieve in the state of Texas is to eliminate your property taxes. Make them go away!” Abbott said at a June “fireside chat” at the Congress Avenue headquarters of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Zero is what we want you to pay for your property taxes in the state of Texas.”
Now, Abbott has an odd tendency to overpromise when under pressure. Remember when he was going to eliminate rape? But this time other elected officials, including at least one House Democrat, have joined the mania.
Can Texas officials really wipe out property taxes? Sure, if they can get 2 + 2 = 5 to pencil out. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, no stranger to flights of fancy, has emerged as the most aggressive critic. Clearly relishing his new role as the Voice of Reason, Patrick has been pointing out that there is simply no way to finance government without property taxes. The numbers are stark. In 2021 property taxes yielded about $73.5 billion in revenue. That’s more than half of all state tax revenue. Meanwhile, all other tax sources—the state sales tax, the tobacco tax, the business-franchise tax, oil and gas taxes, et cetera—produced $71.9 billion that year. Public education alone costs at least $64 billion a year.
“If we eliminated property taxes in the next two years, we would spend every dollar of our budget,” Patrick said at a press conference in June. “There would be no funding for education, no funding for health care, no funding for law enforcement.”
In other words, Patrick kinda sorta accused Abbott of wanting to abolish the police. It was a good dig, but getting rid of property taxes is not a proposal before the Legislature right now. Instead, anti-government crusaders in state government have seized on the next best thing: zeroing out the main school property tax.
On Monday top lawmakers announced a deal that would go quite a way toward accomplishing that goal. Following tax compression (i.e. reduction) legislation passed in 2019, the Legislature is now putting the state on a steady path to eliminating the maintenance and operations (M&O) tax, which makes up 40 percent of all property taxes paid by Texans. This is a big deal—for tax relief, for public education, and for an array of basic services. The M&O tax comprises the bulk of public school funding, about $32.5 billion a year.
After weeks of tedious wrangling, House Speaker Dade Phelan and Patrick announced the broad outlines of an $18 billion tax-cut package. The main feature of the agreement is to use $12 billion from the surplus to compress the M&O tax for all homeowners and business properties. Until the recent dealmaking, Abbott and Phelan had insisted that tax cuts had to be done solely through compression. Patrick, on the other hand, said he also wanted to raise the homestead exemption from $40,000 to $100,000—an overall better outcome for homeowners, who would only have to pay school property taxes on the values of their homesteads beyond $100,000. In the end, the Big Three agreed on a mishmash of policies. Under the proposal, the homestead exemption would be raised to $100,000; nonhomesteaded homes, such as investor properties and second homes, would see limits on their appraisals as part of a pilot project; and some businesses would see savings on the franchise tax. Still, compression remains the core of the proposal.
Compression sounds wonky but is actually pretty simple: at present, Texas’s thousand-plus school districts levy an M&O rate of as low as 80 cents per $100 of property value in order to finance a basic education for the community’s public students. Including the current $40,000 homestead exemption, that works out to about $1,280 per year for a homestead worth $200,000. Under the deal worked out Monday, rates would plunge to as low as 60 cents, or about $960 for such a homestead. (The new, higher homestead exemption would further reduce the tax bill to $600.)
As you can see, this appears to be meaningful tax relief. But what happens to the public schools? Well, the Legislature will use $12 billion from the record $32.7 billion budget surplus to pay for compression. In other words, in the short-term, Texas schools won’t lose any money—nor will they gain any. On its face, this seems like a win-win. The problem, however, is that few at the Capitol are worrying about the long-term ramifications of eventually eliminating the M&O tax.
As I wrote recently, state lawmakers plugged in a perpetual motion machine in 2019: as long as property values continue to grow, state law will force down—compress—the M&O tax rate until it reaches zero. The deal reached on Monday significantly accelerates that process. By 2025 the compression scheme will put the state about 40 percent of the way toward wiping out the M&O rate. But what happens in a bad economy? Where will the money come from to pay for public schools when state coffers aren’t flush? Compression is a bet on good times lasting indefinitely. Texas doesn’t have an income tax, and the chances of one passing are approximately the same as those of Interstate 35 being transformed into a Japanese Zen garden. Sales taxes are regressive, politically unpopular, and volatile. The business-franchise tax has been whittled down to almost nothing.
The mania around abolishing property taxes—or even a property tax—relies on a degree of magical thinking. Credit Dan Patrick, of all people, for highlighting it. Back when Abbott endorsed the House’s property tax plan over the Senate’s in June, the lieutenant governor suggested that Abbott had been played for a fool. “I’m not blaming the governor,” he said. “He didn’t really get into the property tax fight during the [legislative] session. Last week he suddenly reversed course and said, ‘This is my plan.’ I don’t know if he knows what’s in the plan. If someone told him otherwise, then they have given him bad advice.”
Patrick didn’t say who had given Abbott bad advice. But we know who did because Abbott told us:
The “TPPF” here is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing political operation funded by corporations and millionaires and billionaires, including Midland oilman Tim Dunn. In 2021 TPPF reported an eye-opening $26 million in revenue—a staggering sum for a regional think tank. Its board is stocked with oil tycoons and other high–net worth individuals who are major GOP donors and proponents of private school vouchers and other privatization causes.
TPPF has produced a couple of policy papers laying out how it believes the Lege could fully abolish the M&O tax. Like a lot of analyses from this think tank, the property tax proposals have the look of high-minded policy wonkery. There are regression analyses, academic-looking citations, and tables and charts. But upon closer inspection, the work is suffused with assumptions, fuzzy math, and ideological baggage. In a rather amusing admission of whose interests they serve, the authors of one report complain that “those with the highest property tax levies tend to have no children in government-run schools, either now or at any point in their lifetimes.” (Translation: billionaires don’t send their kids to public school.)
The TPPF plan is far-reaching. It would radically recalibrate the balance of power between local school boards and the state, making Texas’s thousand-plus independent school districts forever reliant on state funding. It would also come at a steep price: at least $30 billion a year. To make up for the revenue lost by abolishing the M&O tax, TPPF proposes two options: (a) broadening the sales tax to include currently untaxed items such as over-the-counter drugs and certain types of groceries; or (b) using “surplus” money in the state budget to “buy down” the maintenance and operations costs for schools over time.
The sales tax is a political nonstarter. How many politicians are going to vote to tax groceries and medicine? So-called consumption taxes are highly regressive, disproportionately burdening the poor and the middle class. In 2019 Abbott and Patrick briefly explored the idea of jacking up the sales tax rate to the highest in the nation—as high as 9.25 percent, tied with California’s—before coming to their senses. (Perhaps anticipating the objection to taxing groceries in a state where 20 percent of kids go hungry, the authors of the TPPF plan argue that it is actually the rich who benefit from exemptions on food. “The tax savings, for instance, are far greater on a cut of prime steak than on corn.”)
It is the second option—the buydown—that is essentially a maximal version of “tax compression.” TPPF proposes to set a limit on state spending and use the “surplus” dollars to buy down the M&O property tax over time until it approaches zero while also “fully fund[ing]” public schools. Sounds like a great deal! But Josh Sanderson, the deputy executive director of the Equity Center, a nonprofit that represents more than six hundred Texas school districts, argues that the analysis is flawed. First, it makes all sorts of assumptions: that the Texas economy will keep humming along and there will always be a surplus, that lawmakers will have few other spending priorities over the next decade, that schools can survive on 2020–21 funding levels.
“Their math is bad, and we pointed this out to them several times,” he said. “The numbers just don’t add up.” TPPF, he said, doesn’t account for the cumulative cost of cutting property taxes. Instead, the group assumes a onetime cost of $59.3 billion, based on 2020–21 figures, and then uses its own in-house computation of “surplus” dollars to buy that amount down until it reaches zero in 2032. Ultimately, Sanderson reaches the same conclusion as Dan Patrick: “There’s not enough available state revenue to actually pay for one hundred percent of that buydown. You would have to basically eliminate the rest of the budget where general revenues are used.” You know, health care, child welfare, border security—that kind of thing. But perhaps that’s a feature, not a bug of the plan. Wipe out local school districts’ ability to raise most of their funding locally and squeeze the already-austere state budget. Milton Friedman would be proud.
The Lege is playing a dangerous game with what Sanderson terms a “ ‘Grover Norquist small-enough-to-drown-in-the-bathtub government’ type of proposal.” Sanderson said, “The state is going to run out of money to pay for this very soon, possibly in four years. It’s going to be a train wreck. You’re either going to need additional revenue through a new tax or an increased tax, or you’re going to have massive cuts across the board on existing spending. It is going to be a manufactured crisis.”