Texas newspapers fight hard to retain property tax notices

The special session of the Texas Legislature is at the halfway point, and Texas newspapers are fighting to hold onto public notices for property tax matters.

Analysis by Donnis Baggett, TPA Executive Vice President

We’ve fared well so far, thanks to scores of Texas publishers who contacted their state legislators at a critical juncture — and to Ozona Stockman publisher and editor Melissa Perner, who drove to Austin on Saturday morning to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Government Reform. But the battle is far from over.
On Monday the Senate passed SB1, the property tax reform bill, after adopting an amendment preserving newspapers’ crucial public notice role in the property tax process. Initially, the Senate bill would have gutted newspaper notice requirements and would have allowed online-only notices on governmental websites.
HB3 and HB4, the House’s property tax reform bills, were heard in committee the next day and the full House should vote on them next week. The House bills do not include language weakening newspaper notice, but we are watching closely in case an anti-newspaper amendment is proposed in the late stages. House leaders tell us they won’t support such an amendment, but we’re on high alert nonetheless.
Since the House’s legislation differs from the Senate’s, a conference committee will be appointed to try to reach a compromise. Whether the two chambers can come to terms— and whether a conference committee version would affect newspapers in any way — is anyone’s guess. It’s far too early to relax.
The original version of SB 1 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would have made newspapers one of three public notice options available to property-taxing entities. Another 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 third option would have been for a governmental entity to simply post its property tax notices on its website.
TPA pointed out that a notice appearing only on a government website has a number of inherent flaws:
-A governmental body could easily hide a tax hearing notice or a notice of a newly adopted 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 changes rather than expecting them to find notices on their own by searching a government website.
-The proposal would put the burden on taxpayers to go to every tax assessing entity for each property that they own on a regular basis to stay informed about tax increases, hearings and the like.
-The independent third-party verification and archiving provided by a newspaper notice keeps the tax rate process honest and transparent.
Sen. Bettencourt listened to our concerns and offered the amendment that addressed these problems. The amended version requires either newspaper or mail notice, and a governmental entity using newspaper notice would also be required to post the notice on its governmental website. Small taxing entities are exempted from the website requirement.
Many thanks to all TPA members who contacted their state senators about the problems with SB 1. As a result, Sen. Bettencourt heard from many fellow senators on behalf of their constituents.  After listening to those concerns, he amended his own bill to address our issues.
Once again, the involvement of our TPA members made a positive difference, and the bill that emerged was more fair to Texas taxpayers. Please stay tuned in case we need your help again.