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Education finance reform and property taxes were at the top of Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda this year and that’s what the 86th Legislature delivered.
The final details are being worked out on the state’s budget (House Bill 1), property taxes (Senate Bill 2), and school finance (House Bill 3) by lawmakers this week. The session officially closes on Monday. Technically it’s still possible to amend, kill, or revive some bills in the final days.
“It’s arguably the most dangerous time [for legislation],” said Jeff Coyle, director of the City’s Government and Public Affairs department. “Anything I say is with the asterisk that it could be resurrected like a zombie from the dead.”
Here’s an overview of where legislation stands that impacts San Antonio:
Local Revenue Caps
After several attempts by previous legislatures over the years, a cap on property tax revenues is headed to Abbott’s desk. First, however, Senate Bill 2 has to make it through a conference committee comprised of House and Senate lawmakers.
The new law would require cities and counties to hold an election to approve collecting more than 3.5 percent in property tax revenue than the previous year. This impacts the City’s bottom line when it comes to funding services and programs residents rely on, Coyle said, and decreases its ability to rebound after recessions.
The final bill, SB 2, may have an exemption that allows taxing entities to essentially “bank unused tax capacity” if it collects less than that 3.5 percent increase and use it up to five years later, Coyle said. The City is supportive of that because it could help “smooth out the ups and downs.”
Over the last 10 years in San Antonio, the average property tax revenue growth was 2.6 percent over the prior year. The highest in that timeframe was 8 percent growth, the current revenue cap, and went as low as negative 4 percent.
If a 2.5 percent cap had been in place over the past decade – one was proposed during the last session – the City would have had $304 million less in revenue. Under a 3.5 percent cap, the City would have had $137 million less in revenue and the savings to the average homeowner would have been $1.65 cents over that decade.
There’s another possible provision that would adjust the baseline taxable valuation for tax exemptions. For instance, the city forgoes roughly $52 million in tax revenue because of exemptions and tax freezes for over senior citizens and disabled persons. Under this proposal, Coyle said, that would be credited to the baseline so that “cities are not discouraged from offering local tax relief … instead rewarded for providing relief.”
The conference committee likely will meet soon, Coyle said. “I’m almost sure they will get this done by Monday.”
Paid Sick-Leave Ordinance
Political fighting about whether to include a provision to weaken non-discrimination ordinances led to the failure of SB 15 and other bills aimed at overruling local ordinances that require employers of certain sizes to compensate employees for some time they take off if they get sick.
Most political observers expected such legislation. Indeed, the San Antonio City Council approved its own paid sick-leave ordinance largely under the assumption that the state or the Supreme Court would deal with the issue. If a lawsuit targeting Austin’s local ordinance is appealed to the Supreme Court level and it’s overturned there, that would likely undo San Antonio’s ordinance.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg formed an ad hoc Paid Sick Leave Committee to prepare to enforce the local ordinance in the event the Legislature or courts did not address it.
That committee is working on recommendations for the Aug. 1 implementation of the ordinance, said Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger. “The group meets next on June 4, at which time we will present an update on the Legislature and continue planning the path forward.”
After San Antonio City Council removed Chick-fil-A from an airport concessionaire contract, Republican lawmakers filed HB 3172 that would have prevented government entities from taking “adverse actions” against a business or individual because of its “religious beliefs” or “moral convictions.”
It was presumed dead after a parliamentary maneuver, but then resurrected in the form of SB 1978. It’s been approved by the House and is expected to be approved by the Senate.
LGBTQIA advocates are concerned some will use the new law to discriminate against that community.
“It will have no impact on our actions,” Coyle said. “Legislation can’t be retroactive.”
The First Amendment, some democrats argued, already provides this protection.
State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe)’s SB 1663, which would have stifled the multimillion-dollar Alamo Plaza redevelopment plan approved by City Council last year, failed to make it on to the Legislature’s calendar this session.
The bill would have affected the piece of the plan that will move the Alamo Cenotaph, a sculpture honor the Texan defenders of the historic mission during the famous 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Rather than have it in the footprint of the historic plaza, the General Land Office, the City, and Alamo Endowment have agreed to move it nearly 500 feet south in front of the Menger Hotel.
Transportation Funding Mechanisms
Connect SA, the nonprofit formed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff last year to develop a multimodal transportation plan for San Antonio, was eyeing Bexar County vehicle registration fees (HB 130) and an increase to VIA Metropolitan’s sales tax (HB 3258) as possible options to fund major transportation projects.
Both of the bills, filed by State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio), that would allow that to happen faced substantial opposition on the floor. This doesn’t kill all funding options for Connect SA, but it will mean that revenue will have to come from other sources.
Abbott likely will sign legislation (HB 1152) that will cost the City of San Antonio $7.3 million in fees that telecommunication companies had to pay in order to use public space above or below ground. The companies will no longer have to pay the fees.
Lobbyists for cable companies have been working the issue at the Legislature for months, Coyle said, and successfully got House and Senate approval.
The City’s 2020 budget projections include this reduction of revenue.
Tobacco Age Limit
San Antonio City Council approved a citywide ordinance that upped the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 last year and now the statewide age will be 21 if the Governor signs SB 21. It was sent to him on May 21.
The state law would apply to all tobacco products and e-cigs that deliver nicotine through water vapor, as does San Antonio’s ordinance, but provides and exception for military personnel. Texas would join 13 other states that raised the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21. Two other states have military exemptions.
Other (Likely) Passes and Fails
- SB 29, aimed at reducing lobbying at the Capitol, will likely die. It would have prohibited any tax dollars from going towards lobbying, but would have severely limited the ability of cities to send staff or materials to lobby for and against state legislation, Coyle said.
- HB 2439 is looking good for passage, Coyle said. It was aimed at prohibiting cities from regulating the type of materials used in construction. That’s an obvious problem for San Antonio’s historic districts and other areas where design needs to be sensitive to types of materials used. San Antonio’s legislative delegation worked with other lawmakers to carve out exemptions for that and for dark-skies ordinances that require certain types of materials.
- HB 2584 would let code enforcement officers carry “bite sticks” with them to protect themselves from vicious animals. White it may seem like a “no-brainer,” Coyle said, it’s actually illegal for someone who is not a police officer to carry a club in public. The legislation will likely pass unless it’s delayed for other unrelated reasons, he said.
- SB 2551 would clarify the list of cancers that a firefighter is likely to have acquired while on the job and provide clarity for the City to challenge those claims.
- HB 3143 extends the terms of Chapter 312 to allow cities to offer tax abatement incentives.
Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen praised the work of the Legislature to improve the state’s school finance system and reduce property tax burden on citizens.
They “worked side by side every single day” for a “very fruitful session,” Abbott said.
“This was a session of everyone working as a team,” Bonnen said.
But on the ground in San Antonio and in Austin, Coyle said it was “easily the hardest session” in terms of protecting the City of San Antonio’s authority.
Legislation was filed that would have stripped local control of scooters, tree preservation, short-term rentals, and more.
“It’s a process that really narrows down all of these ideas to a handful of ones that make it through,” Coyle said of the Legislature. “Fortunately at the end of the day, a lot of harmful stuff we were worried about we were able to stop.”
While the struggle between local and state authority isn’t new, Coyle said the volume and ferocity of bills that threaten municipal control is increasing.
The key was having strong leadership in the House and Senate from San Antonio, he said. “We have a great group of members up there.”
The governor has until June 21 to sign or veto bills.