On Nov. 3, 2009, the voters of Texas will once again have an opportunity to take a stand against the burdensome and uneven taxation of residential property. There are four amendments that will directly affect all property owners in the state, and the Texas Association of REALTORS® is imploring all homeowners to vote and be heard on these issues.
So what exactly are you voting for in this election cycle? If you're like me, you have on more than one occasion glanced at a proposed amendment, scratched your head, and had a bewildered look on your face. The language is so full of legislative jargon, and without background information, it is difficult at times to figure out the intent.
I'm sure that anyone who has ever seen an episode of Star Trek has probably wondered, "How is it that aliens from all across the galaxy can speak and understand English?" The television show explained this phenomenon through the use of an accepted convention in science fiction called a "universal translator." No matter what kind of gibberish was spoken, it would always come out as plain English. I have no doubt that anyone who has ever consulted with an attorney on a legal issue probably could've used something like this.
Yes, I am a lawyer. It is a much-maligned profession (and admittedly sometimes deserved). But in this case, I must rise to our defense. Believe it or not, there is a reason why the language of statutes and proposed amendments is so seemingly convoluted. Every word has to be carefully considered and painstakingly analyzed to make sure it meets constitutional requirements, is not overly ambiguous, and will not be misconstrued.
That being said, legalese is definitely not the best way to convey information to voters. So that is why I, your friendly neighborhood association legal counsel, will act as your universal translator for the upcoming election on the proposed constitutional amendments. I'm only going to translate those propositions on the Nov. 3 statewide ballot that directly affect homeowners. By the way, just to be clear, I urge you to join Texas REALTORS® in voting for all of these. Here we go ...
Legalese: The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for the ad valorem taxation of a residence homestead solely on the basis of the property's value as a residence homestead.
Translation: If you're a homeowner in Texas, you are well aware of the astronomical increases in the appraised values throughout the state, especially if the property is not covered by zoning regulations. The central appraisers are using a practice called "highest and best use," which is a method that allows a property to be valued on potential use rather than the current use. So if your residence homestead happens to be near a new commercial development, you could have a Spock-like, eyebrow-raising experience the next time you get your appraisal. Proposition 2 will fix this problem, mandating that a residence be appraised only as a residence, regardless of what the highest and best use of the property may be.
Legalese: The constitutional amendment providing for uniform standards and procedures for the appraisal of property for ad valorem purposes.
Translation: There is currently a hodgepodge of rules and standards for appraisals throughout the 254 counties of Texas. Passing this amendment would allow the state to have direct enforcement and oversight over every appraisal district. This would ensure that there is uniformity of the appraisal processes across the state; and if there were inconsistent appraisal methods among the counties, the state would have the power to establish uniformity. If this amendment were to pass, property owners in counties throughout the state could be assured that they were being evaluated in a similar manner. This is important because state funding for public schools is based on the taxable property in each school district.
Legalese: The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to establish a single board of equalization for two or more adjoining appraisal entities that elect to provide for consolidated equalizations.
Translation: The main responsibility of the board of equalization is to hear appeals of the appraised value to taxable property and to resolve disputes between taxpayers and the appraisal districts. Appraisal districts have had a difficult time appointing boards in rural counties. By allowing appraisal district to pool together their qualified applicants, it would enable those counties to ensure that the appraisal process is handled professionally and in a timely manner.
Legalese: The constitutional amendment to prohibit the taking, damaging, or destroying of private property for public use unless the action is for the ownership, use, and enjoyment of the property by the state, a political subdivision of the state, the public at large, or entities granted the power of eminent domain under law or for the elimination of urban blight on a particular parcel of property, but not for certain economic development or enhancement of tax revenue purposes, and to limit the legislature's authority to grant the power of eminent domain to an entity.
Translation: Surprisingly, this one is actually pretty self-explanatory. Both the U.S. and the Texas Constitution authorize the power of eminent domain. This power allows a governmental entity to take private property as long as it is for a "public use" and the owner is adequately compensated. This amendment would narrow the scope under which private property could be taken by eminent domain. It essentially would eliminate the taking of private property for either private economic development (e.g., a shopping mall) or to boost tax revenues. Lastly, as of Jan. 1, 2010, the power of eminent domain could be granted only by a two-thirds vote of the Texas Legislature.
Now that you're armed with your very own universal translator, you can take the steps to live long and prosper. I'd start by voting for propositions 2, 3, 5, and 11 on the Nov. 3 ballot!