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Rep. Dennis Bonnen lashes out at mayors, police chiefs on tax bill


A combative Rep. Dennis Bonnen attacked local government officials who oppose Senate Bill 2.

The bill would restrict property taxes by triggering ratification elections for hikes greater than 6 percent.

City and county officials say it undermines local control and would hurt public safety.

A combative state Rep. Dennis Bonnen on Wednesday railed against dozens of local government officials who lined up to testify against his bill to restrict local property tax increases and indicated that they may be winning the battle.

Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who is carrying Senate Bill 2 in the House, objected in a hearing to opponents’ lumping his new version of the bill in with the original, by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

“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 at a hearing of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs. “If anyone can’t tell that there’s a difference – not only on this issue but on many other issues – between the Texas House and the Texas Senate, they’re just choosing not to pay attention.”

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If cities or counties raise property taxes by 8 percent or more, residents can petition to hold a referendum on the tax hike. Bettencourt’s bill, which the Senate approved in March, would lower the so-called rollback rate from 8 percent to 5 percent, and would make the elections automatic instead of requiring residents to petition.

Bonnen’s new version would create a two-tier system, allowing residents to petition for the rollback election if property taxes go up by 3 percent plus inflation and triggering an automatic election for increases greater than 6 percent plus inflation.

But it wasn’t enough to persuade groups like the Texas Municipal League and the Texas Association of Counties. And, Bonnen indicated, it may not be enough for him to win approval from his committee.

“You’ve got a lot of votes with you on this bill up here today,” he said to local officials at the hearing.

The dozens of mayors, police chiefs and county commissioners opposed to the bill contend that local officials should decide property tax rates because they know their communities best and can be voted out of office if their residents disagree with a tax hike.

They also noted that a majority of property taxes go to school districts, which are exempt from the bill. Most spending in city and county budgets goes to public safety and fulfilling so-called unfunded mandates imposed by the Legislature.

“Everybody’s upset about rising property taxes, but this bill doesn’t perform any real tax relief and it’s going to make our city less safe,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who attended the hearing but wasn’t able to testify before the committee adjourned as lawmakers headed to the House floor for the day. “If the Legislature was serious about doing something about property taxes, they would fix the school finance system.”

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While Bettencourt has portrayed the bill as property tax relief, Bonnen on Wednesday said that his version of the bill is intended to provide homeowners with transparency and not necessarily lower tax bills.

In a tense exchange with Denton Mayor Chris Watts, the first witness to speak at the hearing, Bonnen noted that it was a special Senate panel led by Bettencourt, and not the House committee, that held hearings across the state in which senators and residents attacked local government officials on tax issues.

“I would ask you as a mayor of a major city that we respect in this state to have a little more sophistication, to pay attention to the issue, than to say, ‘Well, the Senate did it this way, and the Senate said it that way,’ ” Bonnen said. “Did you make it to any of this committee’s interim hearings bashing cities and counties? … There weren’t any.”

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