Better than nothing, I guess, but not clear to me yet how much better.
State lawmakers are looking to partly close a tax loophole that has allowed big companies to drain tens of millions of dollars from local government coffers in recent years, but any reforms that pass may still not end the legal battles that have been driving down appraisals on industrial and commercial properties.
Several reform bills were filed this year as counties began putting pressure on legislators to do something about an increasing number of lawsuits by major companies trying to take advantage of the loophole, which allows property owners to avoid the traditional fair-market system of appraisals.
School districts have been among those hardest hit. Valero Energy Corp. used the loophole to force the Texas City school district to refund about $5 million, while two other lawsuits by the company compelled the Port Arthur school district to pay $32 million in refunds and other charges. The company has new lawsuits pending that could mean even more tax refunds from the two school districts.
The loophole is also costing the state an estimated $70 million to $80 million a year in six counties, according to a January report by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board that called for sweeping reforms. The state must pay its share of tax revenue lost by school districts.
Although several reform measures have been introduced, the one that appears to have the broadest support in the GOP-controlled legislature is a measure introduced jointly by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-Richland Hills, a Fort Worth suburb.
The compromise bill would require that property values used in court cases be arrived at using generally accepted appraisal methods instead of arbitrary estimates arrived at, in the words of the budget board, “independently of the market values of those properties or the appraisal district in which they are located.”
The measure also addresses the board’s concern that the law now allows commercial and industrial property owners challenging their tax assessments to compare their properties with dissimilar ones in other appraisal districts, or even other states. The bill requires that the comparisons be made within the same county unless there are no comparable properties there.
Alvin Lankford, Williamson County’s chief appraiser, said owners of large apartment buildings in his county typically search for such properties in neighboring Travis County to make comparisons rather than use apartment buildings on the same street. “They are able to pick these properties and get the answer they want,” he said.
Many appraisers, citizens’ groups and officials in affected counties wanted a bill that included more of the reforms recommended by the budget board. However, some of the attorneys, consultants, real estate firms and big businesses that benefit tremendously from the loophole refused to negotiate, said Ed Nolan, Dallas County’s chief appraiser and the chairman of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts’ legislative committee.
“We didn’t get as much as we wanted,” Nolan said. “But it’s a start.”
In Houston, property owners concerned about having to shoulder higher property taxes because of tax reductions on industrial and commercial property formed Real Value$ for Texas, which has chapters statewide. The group found that from 2009 to 2013, owners of large commercial properties in Texas’ six largest counties shed $5.6 billion in property taxes that were made up for through higher taxes paid by homeowners.
“It’s unfair, it’s bad public policy and it needs to be changed,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in announcing his own reform bill this month. He said large commercial property owners are using the loophole to “exploit the appeals process to drive down the appraised values of their properties to well below the market value.”
Ellis’ bill was the most ambitious of six reform bills, four by Democrats and two by Republicans. The compromise bill that emerged calls for the most modest changes. It also has the imprimatur of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
I support Sen. Ellis’ bill, and would like to know what he and groups like Real Value$ for Texas think before I decide how I feel about these compromise bills. They may represent a step forward, but they may also represent a point at which the forces who like things the way they are can say “we’ve already addressed this” and block further progress. The fact that Jim Popp, who may be the single biggest individual profiteer off the current system, appears to have signed off on the Darby/Hancock bills is the surest sign that there’s a lot more that could be done. I don’t think he’s complaining enough for these bills to do enough, but this may be the best we can do for now.