Texas Senate Votes to Advance Property Tax Reform Bill

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Juan Figueroa / The Texas Tribune

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks from the dais in the Senate chamber.

The Texas Senate broke a logjam that had paralyzed a piece of priority legislation for weeks, blunting a controversial provision in its property tax reform package Monday and then advancing the bill – without having to deploy a procedural “nuclear option.”

A vote on Senate Bill 2, a top imperative for state leaders, had been expected last week. But an apparent lack of support stalled the vote in the upper chamber, where the backing of 19 senators is generally required to bring a bill up for debate. After Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened to blow past decades of tradition and bring the measure to a vote with a simple majority, state Sen. Kel Seliger, a vocal dissenter, relented, allowing the bill onto the floor for debate but insisting he ultimately would not support its passage.

Seliger’s announcement came alongside a reworked bill that hit the floor Monday with a handful of technical changes and one notable concession. As updated, SB 2 will force cities, counties and other taxing entities to receive voter approval before raising 3.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year – rather than the 2.5 percent trigger originally proposed. School districts would still face a 2.5 percent trigger under the version of the bill approved Monday. Only revenue generated on existing properties, not new construction, would count toward the threshold.

Democrats, municipal leaders and Seliger, a former mayor, have called the 2.5 percent figure punitively low and said it would cripple local governments’ ability to provide public safety services. A 1 percentage point increase is unlikely to appease them; the Senate and House deadlocked at higher thresholds of 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, in 2017.

Still, after around three hours of debate, SB 2 was passed on an 18-13 vote. Legislative rules require that the measure be voted on a final time by the upper chamber before being sent to the House for further debate.

Democratic senators proposed dozens of amendments Monday to exempt hospital districts, community colleges and certain municipal services from parts of the property tax legislation. Most of the proposals failed largely on party lines.

In a lengthy speech explaining his decision to vote to let the bill reach the Senate floor, Seliger criticized Patrick for even floating the nuclear option. The Amarillo Republican who has clashed with Patrick in the past suggested his vote letting SB 2 advance was at least partly driven by a desire to prevent the Senate from taking a procedural move that “discredits this body.”

“We have a way to do things that I think is important. It underscores that we must be willing to compromise,” Seliger said. He added, “This bill’s going to pass. Right now, nobody can get in the way.”

One successful amendment from Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) allows for money counties spend on indigent defense to be partly excluded from the revenue growth calculation.

The House, meanwhile, has postponed a debate on its property tax reform legislation — House Bill 2 – until April 24. Unlike the Senate’s version, the House has exempted hospital districts, community colleges, emergency service districts and school districts from abiding by a 2.5 percent election trigger.

Currently, taxing units can levy 8 percent more property tax revenue before voters can petition for an election to roll back the increase. SB 2 would make those elections automatic and propose a battery of widely supported reforms designed to increase transparency and utility for taxpayers.

Still, the legislation has proven contentious, met with opposition not just from Democrats, but also from far-right lawmakers who would like school districts to be reinserted into HB 2.

Echoing fears espoused by the hardline Empower Texans group, conservative legislators have said homeowners will feel scant relief if there is an exemption for schools, which levy the bulk of property taxes statewide. House leaders point to another measure — approved 149-1 in the lower chamber in early April — that will reduce school districts’ tax rates by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value.

An attempt by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) to strip school district language from SB 2 quickly failed Monday.

SB 2’s progress Monday came after more than two months of stalemate in the upper chamber and after the Senate stalled again Thursday, when the measure was expected to hit the floor for the first time. That evening, after hours of closed-door negotiations, Patrick informed several Democratic senators that if no deal had been reached by Monday, he would take the nuclear option – blowing past a tradition that requires three-fifths of senators to vote to bring a bill to the floor – to pass the measure.

That threat seems to have greased the skids for negotiations, which lasted through the weekend. As recently as Sunday night, Patrick signaled a willingness to take the nuclear step.

“If that is the only choice left to me to pass meaningful and lasting property tax reform and relief on Monday, I will use it,” he wrote in an email to supporters. “You elected me to lead, and I will do just that. Property tax reform and relief, not following procedures, is the top priority. Time is running out on the Legislative Session and we need to act now.”

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