First-Ever Appraisal District Election Is Small Battle in GOP-Dem War Over Taxation in Texas

Elected Dem- or GOP-backed candidates would have outsized power over district

Republicans at the Lege pushed for elected appraisal district positions which play a role in local tax revenue generation (art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images)

For the first time ever, voters across Texas will be asked to elect some of the people who will serve on the obscure oversight boards that play a critical role in the state’s property tax system. Some in Travis County fear the May 4 election could allow Republicans to gain power in what is a staunchly Democratic county.

Pooja Sethi, the newly elected chair of Travis County’s Democratic Party, did not mince words about the stakes of the May election. “It could impact how our schools are funded, access to our parks and libraries, and the ability for our cities and counties to provide services and amenities residents depend on,” said Sethi, who also serves as chief of staff to state Rep. Vikki Goodwin.

What Are You Voting On, Exactly?

Appraisal districts play a key role in determining what a property owner’s tax bill looks like every year and how much revenue local governments have to work with. City Council members, county commissioners, and school board trustees are responsible for setting tax rates, but those rates are applied to property values determined by the appraisal district.

Republican legislators opposed to higher taxes authored and passed Senate Bill 2 last year, which turned three of these previously appointed positions into elected ones, and the two Republican candidates who have filed in this race have lengthy public records opposing taxation and government spending (except on policing). Both declined interviews with the Chronicle. One of the liberal candidates, Daniel Wang, put Democrats’ concerns simply: “The GOP wants to defund local government. Screwing up the appraisal process is one way they could achieve that goal.”

Voters will now elect three officials on the board of directors for the Travis Central Appraisal District – the frequently criticized third-party organization that assesses the property values that local governments use to set tax rates. (These elections will only occur in counties with more than 75,000 people, as is laid out in SB 2.)

Historically, the appraisal district’s board has had two core responsibilities: hiring the chief appraiser who runs the district and approving the district’s budget. But now, they will also appoint members to the Appraisal Review Board – the group of volunteers who settle disputes between property owners and district appraisers over assessed property values.

l-r: Candidates Daniel Wang, Dick Lavine, and Jett Hanna (photos courtesy of the candidates’ campaigns)

Do Republicans Have a Chance in Deep-Blue Travis County?

This election will be for just three technically nonpartisan seats on TCAD’s board. It’s likely to be a low-information, low-turnout election – that is, the kind of electoral environment that is strongly favorable to the Republican party.

The two anti-tax Republican candidates in these races are former Austin City Council member and serial election loser Don Zimmerman, who has filed for Place 1, and Travis County Republican Party chair and Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak for Place 2. Jonathan Patschke, treasurer for the Travis County Libertarian Party, and Bill May, who has no public campaign materials, are running for the Place 2 and 3 seats, respectively.

“The GOP wants to defund local government. Screwing up the appraisal process is one way they could achieve that goal.”  – Candidate Daniel Wang

Meanwhile, the Travis County Democratic Party made a concerted effort to recruit candidates for the three seats on the ballot. Jett Hanna, an attorney with experience in commercial real estate law who served on TCAD’s board from 1988-1990, will run for Place 1; Daniel Wang, an Austin native who has worked as an attorney in the energy sector since graduating from law school in 2020, for Place 2; and Dick Lavine, perhaps the most qualified candidate imaginable for one of these positions, for Place 3. Lavine has been a widely respected budget and school finance guru at the Texas Capitol for decades who served on TCAD’s board of directors from 1997-2018. TCDP has endorsed all three.

The three Democrat-backed candidates share strikingly similar campaign platforms that promise to ensure the work at TCAD remains fair and accurate.

The Potential to Manipulate Appraisals

Beyond fairness to taxpayers, Wang, Lavine, and Hanna all warn that inaccurate appraisals can affect school funding. Regularly, the Texas comptroller conducts an audit known as the Property Value Study to assess the accuracy of a district’s appraisals. If “local values” in Travis County are more than 5% off from “state values,” the comptroller can make Austin ISD pay the state more money into the recapture system.

Another path to undermining the appraisal process lies through that volunteer Appraisal Review Board. SB 2 changed its selection process to require appointments receive a majority vote from the appraisal district board, including two of the elected members – giving the electeds an effective veto over the full board. (It means a hypothetical volunteer that received a 7-2 vote would fail, if the two nay votes were elected directors.)

“The veto power given to elected directors is a real Trojan horse,” Lavine said. “That’s where the mischief could really occur.”

Bettencourt has defended the new law as a way of holding districts accountable, but state Rep. Gina Hinojosa warned that it could be part of the Texas GOP’s broader attack on the state’s property tax system. “There’s no doubt in my mind that including these elections in the property tax bill was a calculated effort to bring in more conservative and Republican viewpoints into the taxation process,” Hinojosa told us. “In Travis County, we run the risk of the chaos agents who run things at the Legislature having a hand in how we make local decisions related to funding for public schools, parks, and libraries.”

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