Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Teed Up: Slicing Texas Tax Breaks

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

The golf course at Houston's River Oaks Country Club

Certain tax exemptions will cost Texas $43.9 billion in 2013, according to a new report from the Texas Comptroller.

Two state senators say it’s time to start reviewing those tax breaks.

“We have no earthly idea what they are, what they cost, who benefits from them,” Sen. Rodney Ellis told StateImpact.

Ellis, a Democrat from Houston, and John Carona, a Republican senator from Dallas, have filed a bill that would require such tax breaks be reviewed periodically to prove they continue to make fiscal sense. For example, breaks for drilling operations enacted years ago to encourage the new and costly horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing continue to drain money from state coffers for a method that today is neither new nor relatively as costly.

The Country Club Tax Break

One break Sen. Ellis says could be targeted right now is one used by country clubs. Ellis will be the first to tell you what a lovely time one can have on the links of the exclusive River Oaks Country Club in Houston.

“I have a lot of good friends who are members there, have had the benefit of being able to play once or twice, would like to get invited again, may not get invited the day you run this story,” Ellis told StateImpact.

Two decades ago as a newly-elected legislator, Ellis saw a news article about how some local country clubs took advantage of a big break and avoided paying millions in property tax. Known as the Greenbelt Act, it gives enormous property tax discounts to owners of tracts of green space that is used only for recreation.

One County Stands Out

Ellis’s efforts to attack the statute back then went nowhere. Now, he’s giving it another try with a bill that would amend the act so that it only applies to such property that “is available to the public without a fee or for a nominal fee.”

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston)

Ellis’s staff found that in the 10 most-populated counties in Texas, a total of 36 clubs took advantage of the break (some counties had no clubs that used it including those in Dallas, Fort Bend, Travis and Bexar counties).

Harris County had by far the most clubs utlilizing the break with 22 of 26 private clubs saving millions in taxes. Ellis’s office found that the River Oaks Country Club had the biggest savings, about $2 million a year from getting its golf course’s market value of about $80 million marked down to only $4.2 million. A call to the club did not result in obtaining a comment.

A staff member of another club listed as using the break, the Houston Country Club, returned a call to say their club never comments on anything for publication.

One person who would comment is Jim Robinson, the chief of the Harris County Appraisal District.

“The country clubs in Harris County have been extremely active in applying for it,” Robinson told StateImpact. “It results in a very significant savings for the owners of these clubs.”

Neither Robinson nor Sen. Ellis would venture a guess as to why Harris County stands out. A spokesperson for the Dallas County Appraisal District couldn’t shed any light either.


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