Public Opinion and Texas Republicans’ Property Tax Problem

Finding a pathway to compromise on reducing property taxes looms as the most acute political problem facing the state’s governing Republican coalition (at least in terms of policy, thanks to l’affaire Paxton). The political stakes are evident in Gov. Abbott’s promise to keep calling special sessions until a property tax bill reaches his desk as he called a second special session this week, following the failure of the Republican-led 88th Legislature to deliver loudly and repeatedly promised reduction in property taxes in both the regular session and the first special session.

Texas Politics Project polling over the course of the last election and the ensuing legislative session reveals how immigration and border security continue to dominate Republicans’ collective political consciousness, and how immediate matters such as the grid and school safety trigger worries. But the June 2023 poll also suggests that campaign promises by Republicans to cut property taxes, followed by the Republican victors’ failure to deliver in the extended legislative session (so far), has likely exacerbated Texas voters’ dissatisfaction with legislative performance on the issue – and fed their low expectations of ever seeing their property taxes go down. 

The political core of the problem facing Republican elected officials – the inability of the Senate and the House and their respective leadership to agree on legislation – is obvious even to the most casual reader of state political news, though the obviousness doesn’t make the striking failure of the legislature to deliver property tax legislation to the governor less of a shock.

The majority party governing the state had done a lot to set voters’ expectations. Republicans running from the top of the ballot on down made property tax reduction a centerpiece of their 2022 campaigns. Democratic candidates tried but failed to convince voters, especially independents and Republicans, to view the election in light of their negative sentiments about the electric grid and gun violence, particularly school shootings. Regardless of whether the local and global fundamentals of the election favored the GOP (a Republican voting majority in the electorate and an election year that advantaged Republicans given a Democrat in the White House defending his first midterm election), Democrats failed to convince enough voters to make the election about a retrospective assessment of Republican governance in those key areas.

Yet now, Republicans are faced with the failure to deliver on one of their marquee promises — and with no one to blame but themselves (or their leadership) – the latest UT/TxPP poll suggests that many Texans, including no small share of Republicans, have noticed this failure, and are rendering negative judgments around the issue. Meanwhile, messaging in the early hours of the second special session called by Gov. Abbott suggests that the positions of the principals in the intraparty struggle to define how property tax relief should be delivered have yet to reconcile their differences

When asked whether they approved or disapproved of how state leaders and the Legislature handled property taxes, the reviews were poor, in both absolute and comparative terms. Only 25% approved, with 45% disapproving, putting disapproval over property taxes in the same ballpark as issues like gun violence (47% disapproval), abortion policy (45%), and the electric grid (44%), and with the highest net-negative approval ratings out of any of the 16 policy areas tested (-20).

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The Texas economy42%
Election & voting laws41%
Immigration / border security38%
Abortion policy38%
Water supply reliability37%
Crime / public safety36%
School safety35%
K-12 public education30%
Gun violence30%
Electricity grid reliability28%
Higher education28%
Political corruption / ethics28%
Property taxes25%
Mental health services25%

And while the other policy areas with the highest recorded levels of disapproval were, largely, driven by Democratic views, property taxes were the only policy area out of the 16 tested in which the plurality of Democrats (48%), independents (55%), and, importantly, Republicans (41%) all disapproved.

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Approve strongly7%4%8%
Approve somewhat11%14%25%
Neither approve nor disapprove24%18%17%
Disapprove somewhat16%21%22%
Disapprove strongly32%34%19%
Don't know10%10%8%

It might also be tempting to think that these negative ratings were registered in response to the special session itself, and its signal to voters that the Legislature has thus far failed to deliver on a key priority. But while the legislature's most recent inability to reach a consensus can’t have helped, consistently negative assessments of legislative performance predate the current impasse. In October 2021 UT/TXPP polling, at the end of that year’s marathon legislature, only 20% approved of the job the legislature had done on property taxes, with 46% disapproving, including pluralities of Democrats (48%), independents (43%), and Republicans (43%). That year also saw overall approval of state leaders’ and the legislature’s handling of property taxes near the bottom of the ratings list, outperforming only the electric grid (18% approval), which experienced a near-collapse that year in response to Winter Storm Uri, and the perennially scandal-ridden Texas foster care system (15%). These results suggest that a negative predisposition toward property tax reduction efforts by the legislature festered during the interim, and are now likely feeding expectations and evaluations in the current session.

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Approve strongly6%5%9%
Approve somewhat6%7%20%
Neither approve nor disapprove23%27%20%
Disapprove somewhat14%16%24%
Disapprove strongly34%27%19%
Don’t know/No opinion16%17%7%

These negative attitudes coexist with a widespread expectation that property taxes will continue to increase, with fewer than a quarter of Texans choosing to believe that political promises will counter expectations driven by years of increasing property values and gobsmacking yearly increases in property taxes. After a year of campaign promises, post-election victory laps including pronouncements that a historical budget surplus would lead to big, noticeable cuts in property tax bills, and a regular session’s worth of headlines about property tax proposals and promises, 42% of Texans said that they expected the property taxes that Texans pay to increase — including pluralities of Democrats (48%), independents (35%), and Republicans (41%).

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Stay the same21%19%22%
Don't know/No opinion15%20%10%

The sorry state of public views of legislative performance on property taxes suggests why the big three are likely, eventually, to sufficiently deescalate the nasty infighting that has broken to the surface in recent weeks to come up with some kind of a compromise measure. The route to such a resolution isn’t entirely apparent at this point, though another round has already begun with the call by the governor for a second special session including a differently worded call. As inexplicable as this all seems to those who have been watching from closer than average proximity, the polling data confirms just how much the failure to deliver on property taxes taps into frustration among the general public.

Public opinion on property taxes and the political dysfunction that have stymied efforts to deliver the promised action on the issue are signs that unambiguous Republican ownership of state government has created political expectations that can be hazardous to Republican officeholders. The lack of concern for general election challenges has for the last decade led most Republicans to focus on internecine jockeying for position, the factional conflicts fueling GOP primary elections, and, in the legislature, personal animosities that have heightened the business-as-usual conflict between the two chambers and their leaderships.

Ironically, property taxes present as an ideal general election issue with a Republican tilt – pleasing to Republicans but at least inoffensive (and beneficial) to Democratic and independent property owning voters. It is a clear nod to pragmatism that neither offends nor contradicts the sensibilities of GOP primary voters who will gladly receive property tax cuts even if the issue doesn’t get their hearts racing like border security and some social issues do. But the current failure to deliver, with no ready explanation other than name-calling and finger-pointing aimed at other Republicans, is likely to be a failure that will rile a grassroots conditioned by years of anti-property tax hyperbole, and persistent skepticism toward the legislature’s ability to get property tax reform right. The current legislative stalemate has created a rare moment of unity among Republicans and Democrats, in which everyone knows who’s responsible for the failure to deliver.

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