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In Texas' Urban Areas, Leaders Wrestled Property Taxes And Pension Woes

Brandon Formby
Texas Tribune
A home in West Dallas sits just a few blocks from where new developments are being built. The new construction is driving up the cost and property taxes of nearby homes.

City officials in Texas faced several challenges in 2017, from pension shortfalls that threatened their budgets to lawmakers who increasingly got involved in local matters.

And as Texans continued to face problems finding affordable homes, legislators failed to deliver on promises of property tax relief. Here's a look at some of the issues the state's urban areas faced this year:
1. Attempts at property tax reform fail twice
Several of the state’s top elected officials entered 2017 promising to bring Texans property tax relief. But bills that sought to slow rising tax bills failed in both the regular and special legislative sessions amid tensions between the House and Senate, both of which are controlled by Republicans.

Some bills were portrayed as major property tax reform that would have brought relief to landowners, but even those would have only slowed future tax increases. And some legislative provisions that would have overhauled how property owners are notified of their assessed land value and how their tax rates are set died amid the larger battle between the two chambers.

Meanwhile, questions arose over how some lawmakers and statewide leaders portrayed their attempts at property tax reform. The Dallas Morning News reportedthat several legislators presented “misleading data” about property taxes during meetings “designed to foment anger” about tax bills. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick claimed at a news conference that one bill would save the average homeowner $20,000 a year, a claim that fell apart under scrutiny from The Texas Tribune.

While legislators voted through some limited property tax legislation that voters later approved, they'll have to wait until 2019 to again try for a massive overhaul that makes major changes to the taxes Texans pay that fund cities, counties and school districts.

2. Many Texans struggled in search for an affordable home
As Texas home prices continued outpacing residents’ salaries, it became harder for urban-dwelling Texans to find an affordable place to live. A Texas Tribune analysis of data underpinning a Harvard University study found that the state’s major urban areas have a mismatch between housing stock and the amount of money Texas workers earn. The analysis also found that the income gap between renters and owners continues to widen and the number of high-poverty neighborhoods is rising in big cities.

3. State, city leaders debated definition of "local control"
Officials in Texas’ largest urban areas spent much of the year criticizing — and battling — several attempts by state leaders to preempt local ordinances. With mixed success, state lawmakers this year wrote bills aimed at overriding local rules that pertained to a litany of things, from annexation to tree removal and ride-hailing regulations.

Local officials said that lawmakers are increasingly pushing for laws that tear at the economic and social fabric of big cities. But legislators said they have a duty to protect constituents from local rules that infringe on residents’ liberties.

Tensions between state and local leaders peaked when Gov. Greg Abbott packed this summer’s special session with a wish list of legislation that critics said were confusing or unworkable. Some said that the rules would benefit construction and development companies at the expense of Texans. And liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice accused Abbott of catering to campaign backers from the real estate and construction industries.

After lawmakers ended the special session without passing bills that would address several of his priorities, Abbott put the blame on the Texas House, led by Speaker Joe Straus, who has since announced he is not seeking another term.

4. Pension woes plagued big cities
While Texas mayors blasted plenty of legislation this year, leaders from Dallas and Houston sought lawmakers' help in shoring up massive shortfalls in pension funds that threatened to bankrupt city coffers or prompt massive service cuts.

Amid attempts to overhaul the complicated pension systems, tensions flared between legislators, city leaders and first responders — and raised questions about the future of pensions for public employees in the state. In the end, lawmakers overhauled the pension funds but concerns over the shortfalls still helped fuel a shortage of police officers in Dallas and Houston.

This story was provided by the Texas Tribune.

Brandon Formby writes about the challenges facing Texas’ largest metro areas as they experience unbridled growth. He joined the Tribune in October 2016 and is the organization’s first reporter based in Dallas. The Texas Tech University graduate spent more than 13 years at The Dallas Morning News, where he covered transportation, local government and politics.