AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Texas is home to some of the hottest real estate markets in the country, with demand for homes driving prices, and taxes, higher.

The latest report from the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M shows that the median home price in the state reached $300,000 in 2021, which is a record. The report found that values are growing at a rate of 15.6% annually. Some metro areas are seeing even faster growth. It’s 18.8% in Fort Worth and 30.8% in Austin.

Many Texas homeowners are seeing the effect of rising housing demand firsthand this month, as property appraisals begin arriving in the mail.

Brent Grablachoff bought his home in Williamson County in May 2021 and when his appraisal came in this week, his home’s value nearly doubled.

“I almost fell out of my chair. I saw a 52% increase from the assessed value in 2021 to this year in 2022,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on forking up that much extra, thousands of dollars a year.”

Texas has a 10% cap on appraisal increases for properties with homestead exemptions, but Grablachoff did not qualify since he bought the house in May last year. To qualify in Texas, the home’s owner must use this home as their principal residence starting on Jan. 1 of that tax year.

Grablachoff isn’t the only homeowner experiencing sticker shock from his property tax appraisal. The Travis County Appraisal District found that residential properties’ values increased 56% and commercial properties increased 54%.

But voters could get some tax relief at the ballot box. Early voting for the May 7 election starts Monday, where Texans will vote on two amendments to the state constitution that aim to cut property tax bills.

Proposition 1 would freeze the frozen school property tax bills for the elderly and Texans with disabilities starting in 2023. It would also lower their school property tax bills year after year.

In the 2019 session, lawmakers passed school funding legislation that could conceivably push the tax rate below the level it was when a homeowner had their taxes frozen. Proposition 1 aims to change the state’s constitution to allow the rates to drop for those homeowners if those rates drop below the levels where they were frozen. The proposition does not allow for rates to increase beyond where they’re already frozen.

Proposition 2 would increase the homestead exemption Texans can take on their school district property taxes from $25,000 to $40,000. That would begin Jan 1, 2022.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, authored both of the proposed constitutional amendments and said Proposition 2 will provide long-term relief to property owners in Texas.

“The homes that qualify get an extra $15,000 exemption, which translates to about $175 per year savings for the lifetime that they that anybody has a home. And that’s thousands of dollars of savings over the life of a homeowner in Texas,” he said.

Actual savings would depend on local tax rates.

Bettencourt said laws passed three years ago will also help homeowners amid the surging market.

“We passed some other legislation in 2019 that as values go up, tax rates are forced down. That’s going to happen in the fall,” he said. Bettencourt was referencing education funding reforms passed that session in House Bill 3, and property tax limits included in Senate Bill 2.

Voters will also decide whether to approve adding property tax relief for seniors and Texans with disabilities. But the wording on the ballot for Proposition 1 is confusing some voters.

It reads: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for the reduction of the amount of a limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for general elementary and secondary public school purposes on the residence homestead of a person who is elderly or disabled to reflect any statutory reduction from the preceding tax year in the maximum compressed rate of the maintenance and operations taxes imposed for those purposes on the homestead.”

The complex language is tied to the process of amending the state’s constitution. The wording on your ballot has to follow what’s written in the part of the constitution that the amendment aims to change.

“You kind of have to be a school finance expert to understand what the ballot language is saying,” said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. “In very simple terms, though, it is just additional property tax relief for our senior citizens,” he explained.

Voters can approve or deny these tax relief propositions on May 7, before final tax bills are calculated.

Texas concert safety task force report criticized as ‘very superficial’

Five months after the Astroworld Festival tragedy, the final report from Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas Task Force on Concert Safety was released Tuesday—and a concert safety consultant doesn’t believe it goes nearly far enough.

The nine-page report (seven pages without the cover and table of contents) lays out recommendations to keep concertgoers safe and prevent another crowd surge like the one that killed 10 people and injured hundreds at last November’s festival in Houston.

The suggestions include requiring centralized on-site command at events to quickly decide whether to shut down or pause concerts during emergencies.

Other recommendations direct event organizers to be clear on which agencies will respond to any 911 calls, to research the artists ahead of time to know what kind of crowd to expect.

“It’s a very disappointing report, very superficial,” said Paul Wertheimer, who runs Crowd Management Strategies, a concert safety consulting firm based in Los Angeles.

In 1979, Wertheimer was part of the task force brought together after a crowd surge killed 11 people at a The Who concert in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He told KXAN the findings in the Texas report, although good ones, are too general and “nothing new,” relying heavily on documents already available online and saying little in the way of enforcement.

“It’s not going to go anywhere. They needed to put teeth in that report,” Wertheimer said. “You can’t talk just about training; you have to talk about what kind of training.”

“And I didn’t see any mention in the report about festival standing room environments, the kind of environment we saw at Astroworld,” he continued. “That’s the most dangerous and deadly crowd configuration for live entertainment events.”

The task force report does lay out specific recommendations when it comes to permitting for big events, suggesting a move to a universal template for permits statewide. Right now, municipalities handle their own permits, while unincorporated parts of counties defer to state statutes.

That’s a problem, according to James Gresham, a board member of the Texas Municipal Police Association, which was part of the governor’s task force.

“For some counties, [overseeing permits] is a very labor-intensive process,” Greshman told KXAN. “Some counties, if they do it at all, it’s more of a rubber stamp.”

Gresham, who helps facilitate the Larry Joe Taylor Texas Musical Festival in Stephenville, said the Texas Legislature could help find permitting solutions during the next legislative session.

“Some states that have a really strong history of festivals—New York, California, for instance—their planning requirements are much more extensive than what we have here in Texas,” he said.

Abbott’s office said no one was available Tuesday for an interview. Questions submitted by email were not answered by deadline.

The governor did issue a brief statement alongside the republishing of the report, thanking the task force for its work, adding, “The recommendations, findings, and solutions detailed in this report will help the State of Texas prevent another tragedy like that at Astroworld Festival from happening again.” 

Investigative reports helping Texas law enforcement spot paper tag fraud

Weimar patrol officer Tom Donalson drove two hours to attend an eight-hour buyer’s tag boot camp. In his over 30-year career in law enforcement, he’s never seen anything as big as Texas’ paper tag fraud problem, which was exposed in a series of KXAN investigations.

“I didn’t know the extend of it, no. I didn’t,” Donalson said. “This was very much eye-opening.”

Inside a large room at the Lakeway Police Department, law enforcement agencies from around the region sat and took notes as Sgt. Jose Escribano played a KXAN investigation on a projection screen.

“I want you to go ahead and take a look at this video from KXAN,” said Escribano, who works with the Travis County Constable’s Office and is one of the leading experts in the state on paper tag fraud. “Thank you, Matt [Grant]. Very, very good coverage right there.”

KXAN’s ongoing investigations into Texas’ “risky rides” are being used to educate law enforcement officers as to the scope and magnitude of the state’s problem.

Sgt. Jose Escribano uses a KXAN “Risky Rides” investigation as part of law enforcement training (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant).

In recent years, criminals have infiltrated the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles’ system by posing as car dealers. That access allows them to print and sell real temporary tags to all 50 states, Escribano said. With Texas now cracking down, the mass-producing of tags has come to a “screeching halt,” according to central Texas law enforcement officer David Kohler, who’s teaching the class alongside Escribano. Kohler asked his agency not be identified because he is speaking only for himself.

Despite the slowdown, statewide fraud is still ongoing.

“It wasn’t until the news media actually went ahead and started reporting on this that we went and got some traction on this, which we’re very thankful for,” Escribano said.

“Otherwise,” he tells the class, “it wouldn’t have come out.”

This is Escribano’s 26th class so far this year. His goal is to do two a month, educating law enforcement across the state — from Amarillo to the border — about the problem, case law and how to catch criminals who try to hide in plain sight. KXAN was given exclusive access to a recent class.

On that day, he showed the class about how temporary tags are counterfeited and the counter-measures that are built in to help tell what’s real and fake in a ballooning $200 million black market.

“The font is off,” Escribano said as he pointed to an image of one fake tag.

“The letter will be right before the last [digit],” he said of another. “Always.”

Sgt. Jose Escribano during a recent paper tag fraud training class for law enforcement. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“It says ‘buyer’ on it but it has that ‘F’ at the end. No, no go. I don’t even have to run this,” he said of a different tag. “Look for the little things. You’re training your eye now to see this.”

From the “geometric layout” to the barcode to the watermark and the font type, the tags’ design alerts a hawkeyed officer to its legitimacy — if they know what to look for.

“Every time I go into a class like today, they are unaware of the majority of the tag problem or what to look for,” Escribano said. “They’re not trained for that.”

Donalson says what he and his colleagues are learning should be required of all officers as part of the basic academy curriculum.

“It’s that important,” Donalson said during a break. “I think that’s the most important thing for police officers is to know what the counter-measures are on this stuff.”

Other law enforcement agencies in attendance — including Highway Patrol, Texas Game Warden and the Caldwell County Constable’s Office — didn’t comment about sending their officers to this training or whether they’d incorporate it into officer requirements.

Escribano called the paper tag problem the “number one safety issue” for law enforcement in the country because it allows criminals to hide in plain sight. Tag fraud, he said, is often linked to burglaries and violent crimes like the killing of two law enforcement officers in Texas.

It’s a problem impacting all 50 states, he said.

This week, the New York Police Department’s Ninth Precinct, which covers the East Village, warned New Yorkers about fake Texas license plates in a Facebook post.

“It’s almost a guarantee, if you drive around our Precinct with these plates, you will be arrested,” the NYPD warned.

Sgt. Jose Escribano shows officers what to look for to spot a fake temporary tag. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

Escribano says criminals are now going back to counterfeiting and altering paper plates. In Travis County, and statewide, he is seeing an increase in real 30-day permits being used fraudulently along with permits being altered, including 144-hour ones. He is seeing these short-term permits used for everything from human smuggling to avoiding vehicle inspections and registrations.

“If you have Adobe Pro and you have a 6-year-old kid that knows how to use a computer, they can change a tag and…it’s going to look legitimate,” he said. “So the officers have to know what they’re looking for.”

Escribano says 30-day permits are “very easy to get.”

“Say, for example, you want to use a vehicle to commit some sort of crime,” he said. “You could go and get someone to get that 30-day permit for you, if you’re a criminal organization, and then use that tag to put on another vehicle. And then do whatever you’re going to do.”

In response, the TxDMV recently announced a crackdown on 30-day permits and how they are issued.

State lawmakers are also getting ready to tackle the problem. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will hold an interim hearing about how illegal temporary tags intersect with human trafficking, drugs and murder. The House Transportation Committee will meet April 26 to look at the effectiveness of a 2021 law, HB 3927, meant to curb paper plate fraud.

The Travis County Constable’s Office is handing out this flyer to drivers stopped for illegal tags (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

While the problem is slowing down, it’s still prevalent, Escribano said.

He now carries with him, and hands out, flyers in the Austin area warning drivers not to buy illegal tags online, or use them at all.

“DO NOT buy a tag from Facebook or the internet, it is ILLEGAL,” the flyer, written in English and Spanish, said.

In the meantime, he wants officers to have the tools needed to fight back.

“Officers will not enforce what they don’t know,” he said. “And they’re just not teaching this.”

Texans lead push to boost federal funds for U.S. semiconductor production

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn admits he wasn’t always knowledgeable about semiconductor manufacturing, but once he learned of the threats to the supply chain and national security, he was all in.

Global shortages of semiconductor chips have made supply chain issues worse for consumers. The chips are likened to the “brain” behind everyday technology ranging from cars to phones to medical devices. Without them, modern-day necessities are not possible.

Cornyn likened semiconductors to “everything with an on and off switch” at a roundtable discussion with business leaders and the University of Texas in Austin on Monday. The university is proposing a project to boost research and development with the help of potential funding from Congress.

The Texas senator was joined by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who has helped lead the legislative effort on the House side. The two have paired together to champion the “CHIPS for America Act,” which has garnered a rare bipartisan support and already passed in both chambers.

The Senate and House bills allot more than $52 billion for semiconductor production and research. Grants and loans from the federal government would subsidize some of the cost of building or renovating semiconductor plants.

Currently, the United States only produces about 11 to 12% of the world’s semiconductors.

During the roundtable discussion Monday, both congressmen expressed deep concerns about the national security risks that come with relying on foreign nations to produce these essential pieces of technology.

“These advanced semiconductor chips are everything from your phone to the most advanced weapons systems that we have in the United States government,” McCaul said. “We don’t want that compromised by our foreign nation adversaries, particularly in the climate that we’re in today.”

The United States does not produce any of most advanced semiconductor chips. Texas A&M supply chain consortium director, Xenophon Koufteros, said those are the tiniest chips — about 10 millimeters — and power things like computers.

Taiwan produces about 92% of those chips and the rest is produced in Japan. Koufteros said this could be disastrous if China were to escalate tensions and invade Taiwan.

“What if China moves into Taiwan? We’d have to shut down just about every industry. We won’t be able to make any phones, we won’t be able to make cameras, we won’t be able to make medical devices,” he said. “If that happens…then it’s going to be a total disaster for us here, not just in the United States but the whole world.”

He pointed to investments like the Samsung semiconductor manufacturing plant that is coming to Taylor in Central Texas. An executive from Samsung was at the roundtable with lawmakers Monday, who expressed optimism in the $17 billion expansion as it relates to easing supply chain issues.

“Adding capacity, whether it be manufacturing, or from research and development that we’re talking about today, is really important for us to help the United States meet its semiconductor interests,” said Jon Taylor, Samsung Austin’s corporate vice president of engineering.

Koufteros said having these types of plants in America is critical, but will take quite some time to build out the infrastructure and other logistics.

“We’re going the right way. But we should have done it years ago, we don’t have to wait until we are before a crisis to act,” he said.

Lawmakers in Washington have to work out considerable differences in the two bills. And Senate Republicans are already digging in before the negotiations formally begin.

President Joe Biden has made the semiconductor legislation a top priority, but he’ll need the support of 10 Senate Republicans, and perhaps more, to get a bill to his desk. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell emphasized that point when congressional leaders recently announced which lawmakers will serve on the committee that works to reconcile the two bills.

“Without major concessions and changes from House Democrats, this legislation has no chance of becoming law,” McConnell said.

House Democrats say their voices need to be heard during negotiations.

“We need to make sure that everyone has input,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a group that has 19 members participating in negotiations. “We have a strong bill in the House, and I think there’s important components there that the Senate should also consider.”

The Senate bill is projected to increase spending by about $250 billion over 10 years. The House bill would boost spending by more than $400 billion over the period.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.