Local Texas leaders remain opposed to property tax bill despite key changes

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a comment from state Sen. Paul Bettencourt.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen railed against several city leaders, county officials and first responders Wednesday morning for opposing a bill he says would provide Texans with property tax relief.

The Angleton Republican unveiled a new version of the proposal during a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs. And even as he defended changes to Senate Bill 2, which the upper chamber passed in an 18-12 vote, he said he doesn’t think lawmakers will pass the controversial legislation this session.

Local leaders for months have pushed back against legislative efforts to limit how much property tax revenues cities and counties can collect without voter approval. They say SB 2 will hamstring their ability to provide necessary services and afford enough first responders.

The new version of the bill increases how much money a local government can collect before it is required to get voter approval. And instead of tying the election threshold to a flat amount of revenues collected, it allows cities and counties to factor in the increase Texas consumers pay for goods and services before getting voter approval. 

Yet city officials and first responders spoke against the bill Wednesday morning, prompting Bonnen to repeatedly interrupt and challenge them.

“It’s very disrespectful that the mayors and the county judges and the commissioners and your lobbyists want to characterize this bill in the exact same fashion as the way it has been managed by the Senate,” Bonnen said.

Some local elected officials said that they appreciated Bonnen’s attempts to change the bill.

“You’re walking the walk,” said outgoing Frisco Mayor Maher Maso. “This is not the same process that played out in the Senate.”

But he and other officials repeated earlier arguments that the bill is another example of state leaders usurping local control. They said it ignores requirements the state places on local entities without providing funding and the fact that most property tax revenues go to school districts, which often increase taxes to make up for lawmakers’ continued decreases in education funding.

They also said that many Texans’ property tax bills are increasing not because of higher tax rates but because of increased property values on which the rates are based.

“Cities and counties have been portrayed as doing something wrong,” said Denton County Judge Mary Horn, a Republican. “We’re not. We pass a balanced budget every year.”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, authored SB 2. On Wednesday, he said he hadn’t had a chance to thoroughly review Bonnen’s proposed changes. But he remained hopeful that the House Ways and Means Committee would pass some version.

“Like everyone else, we’ll stay tuned,” he said. 

One argument opponents of the bill have made for months is that limiting property tax revenues will lower the amount of money cities have to pay for first responders. Sugar Land fire chief Juan Adame drew Bonnen’s ire when he made a similar argument.

“Your point was if you support this bill, you are not able to say you support police and fire,” Bonnen said.

The representative expressed doubts that local voters would have a problem approving a tax rate if they knew it was needed to pay for police officers and firefighters.

Bonnen’s committee heard testimony for about an hour Wednesday morning before recessing for a meeting of the full House. Bonnen said the committee will continue hearing testimony if the House takes a break or after it finishes meeting Wednesday. After the committee hearing recessed, several Texas city and county leaders held a press conference at the Capitol and opposed the bill.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said if voters don’t like how local officials spend public funds, they already have the option of voting those leaders out of office. But he also said he understands Bonnen’s attempt at legislative change.

“He sees people that are upset about rising property taxes, and the tool available to him is a tool that will not be able to give people the real property relief they need because the school finance system doesn’t fall under his purview,” Adler said. “I would be frustrated if I were him as well.”

Sanya Mansoor and Jay Root contributed to this story.

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Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/05/10/local-leaders-remain-opposed-property-tax-bill-despite-key-changes/.

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