A recent report by the Texas Bond Review Board notes that Texas’ total outstanding local government debt is $280 billion, resulting in debt per capita of $8,869. This puts Texas’ local debt per capita in third place of the largest 10 states, behind only New York ($10,788) and California ($9,621), and nearly twice as high as in Florida ($4,753) (Figure 1).
The following figures show the Texas Comptroller’s data for nominal and real (inflation-adjusted) outstanding general obligation (GO) debt for four of the largest cities in Texas (Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio). Each of them shows increased GO debt per capita from 2011 to 2020 in nominal and real amounts. But these amounts per capita show some differences.
The unsustainable deficit accumulation across many of Texas’ local governments reflects irresponsible spending. Economist Michael Munger called this “Deficits Are Future Taxes” (DAFT), meaning, increased debt signals a current spending issue and a future taxation problem for the next generations. This is a significant challenge for the state’s future and drives up property taxes higher than otherwise.
My analysis in June 2022 found that Texas’ four major cities have exceeded a responsible city budget for years, contributing to higher taxes and debt. This responsible budget sets a maximum threshold based on the average taxpayer’s ability to pay for it, which is best represented by a fiscal rule of a spending limit with the rate of population growth plus inflation. Of course, this growth is a maximum as the budget really should be frozen or even cut for most governments given their spending excesses over time. Truth in Accounting defines the local taxpayer burden as “the approximate dollar amount that would be required of each taxpayer in order to pay off all of a government’s liabilities today. It is calculated by dividing the ‘money needed to pay bills’ by the estimated number of taxpayers in the state or city,” demonstrating the depth of debt.
When local governments want to spend more given their balanced budget requirements, they must raise taxes, and they primarily raise property taxes.
The Texas Comptroller reports that property taxes are the biggest revenue source for local governments. Here are the current total property tax rates for these large cities:
According to the Tax Foundation, Texas currently has the sixth-highest property tax burden on those with a home in the country (Figure 10)
Although the Lone Star State has no income tax, its substantial property tax burden increases because of excessive local government spending increases in recent decades has burdened renters and holders of a home, reducing the state’s affordability. The Tax Foundation’s state business tax climate ranks Texas 38th out of 50 for the burden of property taxes.
The Texas Legislature recently passed and Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 2 with $12.7 billion in property tax relief. This package includes reducing the school district maintenance and operations (M&O) property taxes by 10.7 cents per $100 valuation. It also includes raising the homestead exemption for school district property taxes by $60,000 to $100,000. However, this package should have been much larger, as there were $33 billion in surplus funds available and tens of billions of dollars more available, leaving plenty of taxpayer money to return. The property tax bills provided further complicate the tax system and will not result in as much relief as some are advertising. The best approach was to reduce school district M&O property tax rates with all the relief provided. This should have been at least $21 billion for a reduction of 25 cents per $100 valuation. This would have provided the largest property tax cut in Texas history (Figure 11) instead of the second largest because of the largest spending increase in the state’s history.
For the state to stay competitive and improve the future for Texans, Texas should seek to reform the largest hindrances to its economic flourishing: government spending and property taxes.
The ultimate burden of government is not how much it taxes, but how much it spends. This is true at the national, state, and local levels. Texas boasts many metrics of economic freedom, including no personal income taxes, less burdensome regulations, and relatively less government spending. Recent increases in these areas hinder opportunities to prosper. Immediate policy changes to state and local budgeting that will eliminate property taxes, increase transparency for budgets, debts, and taxes, and strengthen their fiscal situation will help Texas better support prosperity for Texans today and for generations to come. Moreover, this will finally give Texans their God-given right to own property instead of renting from the government forever. Stop renting, start owning!
Originally published with links to all sources at Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.