Updated 5:21 pm, Saturday, August 12, 2017
Photo: Stephen Spillman /For The Express-News
AUSTIN – The Texas House on Saturday debated Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priority for the legislative session — curbing local authority over property tax increases — as the bill’s author said it would give taxpayers some protection but not “one ounce” of relief.
People whose property tax bills are putting a strain on their budgets are crying out for help, say Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and some other champions of the proposal to institute automatic rollback elections when property tax revenues rise above a certain level.
But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said he can promise only that his bill would give people the protection of having more say over proposed tax increases. It would do nothing to reduce current taxes.
“It does not provide one ounce of property tax relief. It’s not intended to, and anyone who suggests that is giving you bad information,” Bonnen said as he outlined the bill for the House.
Whether a tax revamp passes may go a long way toward determining whether Abbott considers this special session a success, judging by his comments before the session began.
“I would say this is the No. 1 issue that we must address,” Abbott said of property taxes on the eve of the session, during a forum at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “It’s tough for a parent to pick among multiple children, especially if you have 19 children, but I would say of the 19 items we have on the agenda, addressing property taxes … is the most important issue.”
The session, which can last up to 30 days, began July 18 with an agenda set by Abbott including a must-pass bill to keep state agencies open and 19 other topics, many aimed at reining in local officials’ power over spending, taxes and regulations.
Local officials from around Texas, including San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, are fighting the property tax bill, saying it would affect their ability to provide key services, including police and firefighting services that protect public safety.
Critics say if lawmakers want to relieve local property tax bills, they should address the school funding system, which relies heavily on local property taxes. The House has approved a school finance reform bill, and the Senate was scheduled to take up its own version of the topic Saturday.
Under current law, people can petition for a rollback election if cities, counties and special districts move to raise property tax revenues more than 8 percent.
The Senate has approved lowering the threshold to 4 percent and making the rollback election automatic if revenues are scheduled to increase beyond that. Abbott has suggested that a 4 or 5 percent trigger would be appropriate.
Bonnen’s committee changed the rollback threshold to 6 percent, also with automatic elections, before voting out Senate Bill 1. Both measures contain exemptions, although their details differ. School districts, which already have automatic rollback elections, wouldn’t be affected.
Bonnen staved off amendments to the measure to honor commitments he made to his colleagues lawmakers in order to move the contentious bill through his committee and the Calendars Committee to the full chamber for a vote. He said amendments would kill the bill. In a key test of the House leadership on the issue, the chamber voted down a proposal to make the rollback trigger 4 percent.
If approved by the House, the bill will go to the Senate for consideration of changes. The Senate could ask for a conference committee to negotiate differences.
The 6 percent threshold was more palatable than 4 percent to some, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. He said he would prefer that local officials be allowed to manage their revenues, but that the county could live with 6 percent.
Rep. Diana Arévalo, D-San Antonio, is among the bill’s opponents.
“Senate Bill 1 does not provide relief for taxpayers. In fact, it forces taxpayers to spend money on costly elections every year. Futhermore, it starves cities form being able to raise adequate funding to fund basic services like public safety,” she said.