BY Ross Ramsey

Texas voters believe local governments should have voter approval to raise property tax revenues more than a set amount, and a majority said that will not prevent those governments from providing needed services or responding to growth, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, 72 percent of the poll’s respondents support requiring local governments to ask voters before raising property tax revenues more than a set amount, including 51 percent who said they “strongly support” that idea. That support includes 84 percent of Republicans, 62 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents in the poll. The voters weren’t asked about the specific 2.5 percent growth trigger currently being considered by lawmakers, but the idea itself was popular with every demographic group.

Slightly more than half of those voters — 52 percent — said they believe such growth caps would actually lower their current property taxes; 69 percent said that the caps would slow the growth of taxes they have to pay in the future. More than half (55 percent) said requiring voter approval would not “prevent local governments from providing necessary services,” and 54 percent said it would not “prevent local governments from responding to population growth.”

Asked about property taxes, 58 percent of voters said Texans pay too much, 23 percent said property taxes are about right and 8 percent said Texans pay too little in property taxes. Republican men lead that charge, with 72 percent saying property taxes are too high. Among Republican women, 56 percent agreed, while 52 percent of Democratic women and 44 percent of Democratic men agreed.

“Nobody thinks they pay too little,” said Jim Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “This polls well with virtually every group.”

There’s a danger in that relatively high number of voters who think that the measures before the Legislature will actually lower their property taxes. The leadership-backed bills might restrain growth, but they wouldn’t lower current rates.

“There’s an expectation out there right now that this kind of measure will have an immediate effect — an immediate ameliorative effect,” Henson said. “But there’s no reason to expect that’s going to happen.”

“It’s very interesting that the way this discussion is being framed right now is not working for those who see this as threatening to the ability of localities to deliver services,” Henson said. “That message has not landed.”

More Texans believe the quality of public education in Texas is excellent or good (47 percent) than believe it is “not very good” or “terrible” (42 percent). A majority of Republicans praised school quality, while a slight majority of Democrats were critical of it.

Only 24 percent of voters said they approve of the way state leaders and legislators are handling public education in Texas, while 42 percent said they don’t approve. Democrats were particularly disapproving: only 15 percent approve, while 54 percent disapprove. Republicans were more positive, without being particularly so: 34 percent approve, 31 percent do not.

Asked to rank the problems facing K-12 public education in Texas, 46 percent of voters put “low teacher pay” among their top three choices, followed by “not enough funding for the public school system as a whole” (38 percent), “unequal resources among schools and school districts” (30 percent), “system of financing for public education” (28 percent), “accountability of schools and school districts” (28 percent), and “quality of teachers” (27 percent).

Texas doesn’t spend enough money on primary and secondary education, according to 55 percent of those registered voters, while 9 percent said the state is spending too much and 18 percent said spending is about the right level. Republicans were split, with 38 percent saying spending is too low, 14 percent saying it’s too high and 27 percent saying it’s just right. Among Democrats, 75 percent said spending is too low, 2 percent said it’s too high and 10 percent said it’s just right.

Voters were asked where they’d look for money should lawmakers decide more is needed for public education. They’re against three big potential sources, with nearly three quarters saying the state should not increase sales or motor fuels taxes or create a state income tax. Support for each of those increases was below 18 percent.

But nearly half would be willing to consider reducing the number of sales tax exemptions for business and professional services. Increasing taxes on alcoholic beverages and redirecting oil and gas taxes from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund to public education was acceptable to well over half of the voters.

The most popular of the listed choices? Legalizing marijuana and taxing it drew 60 percent support as an acceptable source of public education money. Republicans aren’t fans of that notion, with 43 percent in favor and 51 percent against. Democrats like it better, with 79 percent saying lawmakers should consider legalizing and taxing pot.

“They don’t want increases in sales or property taxes — and not a tax on income,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin. But voters are telling legislators where they might seek money without being punished for it, he said: “You can stick it to business, and tax marijuana, though.”

Asked about the issues state leaders have put on the Texas Legislature’s agenda for the current session, voters said public school funding, property taxes and increasing teacher salaries top their lists. Among Republicans, property taxes were most important, followed by school funding and mental health services. Among Democrats, the top items were school funding, increasing teacher pay and school safety.

Shaw said the state’s GOP leaders are starting with issues in a way that lines up with what their constituents are thinking.

“There’s certainly evidence they’re thinking about voters,” he said. “Republicans have done a pretty good job of framing things.”

Asked an open-ended question about what lawmakers should put first during the session, 23 percent listed immigration or border security, followed by education (14 percent), health care (7 percent) and property taxes (6 percent). Among Democrats, the top answers were education and health care; among Republicans, immigration/border security, education and property taxes; among independents, immigration/border security and education.

“It’s interesting that property taxes didn’t come up more frequently, given the narrative that it’s what leaders say they are hearing about [from voters]. At the same time, it speaks to the salience that immigration and border security just consistently hold for Republican voters,” said Josh Blank, manager of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin.

“It also shows you there are a lot of people not paying attention to the legislative session right now,” Blank said. “But if you limit the question to what lawmakers are working on right now, public school funding, property taxes and teacher pay raises are a pretty good set of issues.”

Voters, who seem tuned to the same frequency as state leaders on issues, have relatively good things to say about their top leaders. All three have more positive than negative job ratings: Gov. Greg Abbott gets good marks from 51 percent and bad ones from 32 percent; 42 percent of voters approve of the job Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is doing, while 31 percent do not; and newly elected House Speaker Dennis Bonnen gets good grades from 26 percent and bad ones from 16 percent. He’s also the least well-known of the three leaders: 59 percent have a neutral or no opinion of Bonnen, compared to 17 percent for Abbott and 26 percent for Patrick.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from February 15 to February 24 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

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