Texas State Representative
By Greg Ritchie
The Messenger continues its Sunday Sitdown reports where we speak with our local pastors, educators, businesspeople, students and interesting people of all walks of life in Houston County. To see the full video interview, check out the video in the link below. The Messenger would like to thank Cutshaw Chevrolet in Grapeland for sponsoring this week’s edition.
Can you update us on the property tax appraisal situation affecting so many in our area?
“I want you to know property taxes – leading up to this session and when we were sworn in in January – was and continues to be the number one issue I hear about from folks I represent. So it’s a top issue for me in terms of my focus and energy in Austin this session. The Lieutenant Governor, the Governor and the Speaker of the House have all been very public about their focus on doing something for property tax relief for property owners in Texas this session. Nobody wants to come home after Memorial Day without good news for property owners in Texas, certainly not me. As a matter of fact, just to show you how important property tax reform relief is to the Speaker of the House, House Bill Two is our property tax reform and relief bill and the speaker assigns his priorities for our chamber. And so having House Bill Two as our appropriate tax bill, I think speaks volumes about the importance of that to our chamber. One thing I personally think we need to be focused on is appraisal reform. We’ve never been able to really reform our property tax valuation system, run by each of our county appraisal districts. I know folks argue and point fingers at the appraisal district, but in many cases, they’re just following state law. And so it’s incumbent upon us while we’re in session, to go about reforming those laws, as pertains to trying to reign in appraisals. And this is controversial, but I support capping the growth in appraised values. Right now it’s 10%. The proposal in the house would cut it in half and your taxable valuations cannot go up more than 5% in any year. In most cases, your local government – whether it’s the city council, the school board, the county commissioners court – they’re not the ones going up on the property tax rate. It’s their property valuations that are driving that increase in their property tax bill. So that’s what we need to focus on. And I’m really pleased that the house is focused on trying to reign in those skyrocketing property taxes.”
What is the situation with state requirements that may soon affect local school districts?
“Before I ran for the legislature, I was president of a school board in Lufkin, so I stand behind no one when it comes to local control. As I remind my colleagues in the legislature, the same folks that elect us, elect our local elected officials and we have to have faith in the voters across Texas to use good judgment that they’re putting the right people in place. I am not a big fan of the state government, in most cases, coming in and telling local elected officials how to run their local government – especially when it comes to our public schools. I try to remind my colleagues, both in the public education committee, as well as in the house generally, that we need to be mindful of local control and local elected officials. Often what the legislature does in terms of infringing on local governments is not being driven by Houston County and our local governments. Many times it’s what’s being done by Houston Independent School District, or Austin Independent School District, or the city of Houston or Dallas, and in in some cases they do overreach. But a one-size-fits-all policy in response to that does impact our school districts in Houston County and across East Texas. Many times it’s uncalled for and not necessary. I believe in ‘bracketing,’ as we call it in Austin. If we get a runaway school district in Houston, for example, then let’s fix Houston ISD. But let’s not trample on the rights of the students, the parents, the teachers, administrators and the school board members in the school districts across Houston County. And that’s not to say from time to time, that we don’t need reforms in our policies as it pertains to public education for all of our school districts. But generally speaking, what I usually hear is, ‘We just need government to stay out of our hair.’ I am a strong supporter of our public schools as a product of our public schools myself. I want them to thrive because our public schools and our churches are the backbones of our small rural communities. And I have a duty to to stand up and be a voice for them.”
Your job can seem under-paid and under-appreciated. What motivates you to continue to do it?
“My wife asks me that all the time! It always amazes me how many people don’t know this, but the 150 house members and 31 state senators make $600 a month – and it’s been that way for many, many decades. In our current state constitution, we’re considered ‘part-time citizen legislators,’ which I love. Our form of government in Texas is different from every other state. We only meet every-other year and we only meet for 140 days – about five months. So we get the people’s work done – and this is the beauty of this – then we come home and we live under the laws that we make. Washington D.C. does not do that. We are in touch with our constituents. Whether at work, at the grocery store or at church, I’m in constant contact with my voters. If I’m out of line, I’m going to hear about it on a very personal basis. With the connected digital media society we live in, there’s nothing part-time about being a Texas lawmaker anymore. It is a full time job. And we have to be accessible, and it is demanding to try to be a full-time legislator and also have a job where I can pay the bills and then to be a full-time husband and dad. So it is a balancing act. But the reason I do it is because I love it. My mom instilled in me public service and, much like the ministry, it’s a calling. I love serving the people and I love making a difference. I enjoyed being in Austin, making laws and representing the folks but what I really enjoy is the day in and day out, being able to help people having issues with their state government. To see somebody that thanked me for helping out a family member going through a tough time or struggling with something – that’s what keeps me coming back. I love doing it. I want to carry this banner as long as I can and as far as I can. Then I want to pass it off to somebody with a fresh set of legs, fresh set of eyes and vision and let them run for us in East Texas. It’s a great privilege to represent the folks in Houston County and across House District Nine and I do not ever take that for granted.”
Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]