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New Texas Laws Take Effect On January 1

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AUSTIN (AP) - Tens of thousands of spouses of totally disabled veterans in Texas will qualify for significant property tax relief under a new law taking effect Jan. 1.

Texas law already exempts veterans who are declared 100 percent disabled because of combat injuries or other service-related causes from paying property taxes on their home. As of Jan. 1, that homestead exemption will also apply to their spouses after the veteran dies.

The change will help some of those spouses, many living on fixed incomes, to keep their homes, said John Burkhardt of the Austin chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart veterans group.

“Some of our veterans have owned their homes for many years and when they die, their spouse can get hit with huge bills,” Burkhardt said.

The disabled veterans measure is one of a handful of laws taking effect in 2012. Another provides new protections for homeowners who are late paying dues or fines to aggressive neighborhood associations that may try to foreclose on their property.

Another law requiring Texas voters to show valid photo identification before casting a ballot is supposed to take effect in 2012. It remains on hold, however, while under review by the Justice Department to ensure it would not violate minority voting rights under the Voting Rights Act.

The homestead exemption for disabled veterans’ spouses required an amendment to the state Constitution, which was approved by voters in November.

It won’t come cheap. According to a Senate analysis, the exemption is estimated to cost state and local governments about $25 million in property taxes by 2016.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, one of the authors of the law, called that an insignificant budget impact when compared to the sacrifices made by the veterans and their families.

“When they came back from war 100 percent disabled, that’s a very special class of soldiers,” Patrick said. “We’re not talking about people living in million dollar houses. For the most part, we’re talking about people trying to get by on military benefits.”

Texas has about 300,000 disabled veterans, and nearly 25,000 of them are designated as 100 percent service-related disabled, according to the Texas Veterans Commission. About 16,600 of those are between the ages of 55 and 75.

The homestead exemption applies to the veterans’ primary residence and expires if the surviving spouse remarries. The exemption moves with the surviving spouse to a new home if the home would be an equal or lesser dollar value compared to the old one.

The new restrictions on homeowner associations require them to give homeowners three to 18 months to pay off late dues or fines.

Homeowners also will be allowed to contact their association directly about their late payments, even if the association has retained an attorney or collection agent. The law also allows homeowners to prevent their association from using foreclosure if the ban is approved by two-thirds of its members.

Another provision requiring associations to get a court order before foreclosing took effect Sept. 1.

Homeowner advocates say they have been fighting for the protections for years.

“This is the first time we got protection that had real teeth,” said Harvella Jones, president of the Richmond, Texas-based National Homeowners Advocate Group.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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