A special Texas Senate committee on Saturday approved a bill that would require cities and counties to get voter approval for property tax increases exceeding 4 percent, identified by Gov. Greg Abbott as his top priority of the 30-day special legislative session that began Tuesday.
Senate Bill 1 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, is expected to sail through the upper chamber, which approved a similar measure during the regular session, before facing an uncertain future in the House.
Currently, residents can petition to force an election on tax increases of 8 percent or more by cities, counties and special purpose districts. The bill would make those elections automatic, as well as lower what’s known as the rollback rate that triggers them.
“This is the way for the public to believe that they have some input into the tax rate process,” Bettencourt said at a hearing of the Select Committee of Government Reform, which he chairs. The committee approved the bill in a 5-2 party-line vote.
The bill’s opponents, primarily Democrats and many local government officials from both parties, have argued that the bill will provide little if any property tax relief because it does not include school districts, which account for a majority of Texans’ property tax bills. The Legislature has reduced its share of education funding in recent years as property values have increased and school district leaders have increased tax levies.
“Local governments are stepping up, and the state Legislature has neglected the children of Texas,” Travis County Democratic Party Chairman Vincent Harding testified at the hearing.
During a presentation on the bill, Bettencourt pointed to property tax increases approved by some of Texas’ largest counties in the last three years, saying that homeowners’ incomes were not rising as quickly as their tax bills. But he highlighted one large county that bucked the trend: Travis County, usually the whipping boy of choice for Republican state lawmakers.
“I know it may be a shock but Travis County has the best record on reducing tax rate,” Bettencourt said. “What SB 1 intends to do is to get the other counties to start acting like Travis County.”
The Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, is expected to approve the bill early next week. There is far less appetite for the measure in the House, where Democrats and some rural Republicans oppose it.
Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is carrying a similar bill in the lower chamber. In the regular session, Bonnen’s attempt to pass strict rollback rates similar to those in Bettencourt’s bill was rebuffed by the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs.
To advance the bill, Bonnen watered it down, removing the rollback rate provisions but leaving transparency measures that are intended to make it easier for taxpayers to understand their bills and have broad support.
Opponents of the Senate bill say it strips cities and counties of local control by tying the hands of city council members and county commissioners as they write budgets.
At Saturday’s hearing, Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman said that the debate over the bill made him feel that “we’re not a team. It’s you guys against us.”
“With no disrespect to the panel, I don’t think we need your help,” he said.