Madewell

Start talking money in the millions and billions and I can’t quite wrap my mind around that many dollars.

But when Lamar County begins attracting companies willing to invest $450 million in a solar energy farm, it piques my interest. And, when one of our county school districts could receive $100 per student per year for the next 10 years in addition to what it receives from local taxes and state funds, I become even more interested.

In fact, I become obsessed with finding out all I can about a program, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t even know existed.

Needless to say, I’ve been stalking the internet and bugging state officials to find out more about this Chapter 313 section to the state’s property tax code, also known as the Texas Economic Development Act passed by lawmakers in 2001 to help school districts with additional funding and to convince large companies to invest in Texas.

Superintendent Jeff Ballard of Prairiland ISD, the expected recipient of a windfall of funds from two different solar projects, should be happy to know I’ve learned his district won’t be penalized by the Texas Education Agency for receiving the extra dollars.

I went directly to the horse’s mouth with my questions and, surprisingly, got to talk with Al McKenzie, director of state funding with the Texas Education Agency.

He said TEA only considers a district’s appraised value when doling out state funds. Because of Chapter 313 and its provision for a 10-year value limitation agreement between investors and school districts, real values — like $450 million or $240 million, as is the case with two proposed farms in Prairiland ISD — don’t show up on property appraisal reports. Had I had this information in time, it would have been in a story published Tuesday.

Between the time Chapter 313 became law through May 2016, there were 313 projects approved with companies investing $146.2 billion, according to a 2016 biennial report from the Texas Comptroller’s Office. Those companies received $7.1 billion in tax breaks. In the case of renewable energy projects such as wind and solar farms, companies returned 20 percent of their tax benefits back to school districts through supplemental payments such as those Prairiland expects to receive.

Although the program has found favor with lawmakers to date, Chapter 313 has its critics. A March 2016 Texas Observer report titled “Free Lunch” by Patrick Michels states, “Forget about the governor’s slush funds, (Texas Enterprise Fund and Emergency Technology Fund) the biggest corporate welfare program is one you’ve probably never heard of — and it’s growing every year.”

Maybe I’m not the only one who hasn’t heard about Chapter 313 after all. Check out the article and see why there’s a rush by firms such as the two dealing with Prairiland ISD to get applications approved before the Texas Legislature meets in January.

Although state Rep. Gary VanDeaver says he knows of no bills filed so far “that would limit or otherwise change the 313 statue ... there are concerns by some that this is a ‘carve out’ unfair to other taxpayers.

 “As with everything else, my advice to someone considering this is to take advantage of current law because when the legislature is in session, anything can happen,” VanDeaver said.

Stay tuned, as I certainly will be, to future developments with the Texas Economic Development Act.

Mary Madewell is a staff writer for The Paris News. She can be reached at 903-785-6976 or mary.madewell@theparisnews.com.

Mary Madewell is a staff writer for The Paris News. She can be reached at 903-785-6976 or at mary.madewell@theparisnews.com.

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