Resolution to legislative standoff emerging as session end nears


Highlights

House takes key actions on property taxes, transgender bathroom access and keeping state agencies operating.

House and Senate negotiators also announce that they have reached a compromise on the state budget.

A possible resolution to the high-stakes stand-off between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus is coming into focus this weekend, with lawmakers acting on key measures on the state budget, local property taxes, transgender bathroom access and keeping state agencies operating.

Last week, Patrick threatened to force a special legislative session unless the House approved bills on two of his priorities: restricting local property tax increases and prohibiting transgender Texans from using the bathrooms of their choice.

On Saturday afternoon, the House approved a watered-down version of the property tax measure and plans to give the same treatment to the so-called bathroom bill on Sunday, a source with knowledge of the plan said. Also Saturday, the House moved to take away a procedural bargaining chip claimed by Patrick, who leads the Senate, when he issued his ultimatum.

Meanwhile, House and Senate negotiators announced Saturday evening that they had reached a compromise on the state budget.

The rapid developments showed that there is a path forward for the two top Republicans in the Legislature to resolve their dispute without forcing an overtime period for lawmakers. But the negotiations are far from over, and both sides will have opportunities to torpedo the other’s plans before the regular session ends on Memorial Day.

The showdown began when the House a week ago failed to approve a procedural bill needed to keep some state agencies open. Patrick pounced, saying he would hold up the Senate version of that bill, likely forcing a special session, unless Straus gave in to his demands.

On Saturday, Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said in a statement that “the lieutenant governor has used his leverage effectively and he is watching the House and the action they are taking on the key issues he identified this week.”

The House’s answer to the most divisive element of Patrick’s demands — the so-called bathroom bill — will on Sunday be added as an amendment when the House takes up Senate Bill 2078, which seeks to improve emergency planning procedures in schools.

Unlike Patrick’s preferred legislation, Senate Bill 6, the House’s bathroom language will be limited to schools, said the source, who asked not to be identified because the matter was still being negotiated.

Property taxes

SB 2, authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would have required cities and counties hoping to raise taxes by 5 percent or more to hold elections ratifying the increases. Currently, the “rollback rate” is 8 percent, and residents must petition to trigger the elections.

The bill also makes changes to the information that taxing entities must give to taxpayers, aiming to increase transparency and clarity in the appraisal and rate-setting processes.

The House cast aside the language on the rollback elections, which didn’t have broad support in the chamber, and instead attached the transparency provisions as an amendment to SB 669, a separate measure that makes changes to the appraisal protest process.

Conservatives have balked at the House changes, saying they don’t provide meaningful tax relief.

“This is going to be presented to everyone as good enough and a victory when we could have had so much more, and I’m disappointed that Republicans are willing to accept this,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.

But Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, who carried the legislation in the House, said the transparency measures do more than the rollback election proposal could, because they give homeowners the ammunition they need to contest any increases in their taxes, not just those that cross the 5 percent threshold.

“I also don’t respectfully believe that changing the rollback rate is a panacea for taxpayers,” he said.

The House’s decision to abandon the original SB 2 — and instead insert the transparency measures into SB 669 — provided a key strategic advantage for opponents of Patrick’s preferred language. Citing rules that require amendments to a bill to be relevant to its original purpose, Straus and the House parliamentarian turned away an attempt by Rep. Matt Shaheen, a Plano Republican and an ally of Stickland’s, to add the rollback provisions.

Sunset scheduling bill

Just more than a week ago, the tea party-aligned House Freedom Caucus killed a measure to keep a handful of state agencies operating.

With the House version dead, Patrick announced Wednesday that he wouldn’t act on the identical SB 310 until the House met his demands.

But the House on Saturday adopted an amendment by Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, to a separate bill that House leaders say will extend the life of the five state agencies that would’ve been abolished.

“If (the sunset bill’s failure) were the only issue, then certainly it can eliminate that from keeping us here in a special session,” Price told the American-Statesman. “This should solve that problem.”

Straus spokesman Jason Embry said the House’s action Saturday “extends the agencies that aren’t addressed in other legislation.”

The saved agencies are the Texas Medical Board, the State Board of Social Worker Examiners, the State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists, the State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and the State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors.

The Senate has the opportunity to accept or decline the House’s amendments to SB 80, meaning Patrick can still use the issue to force a special session. But he can no longer claim it’s partially the House’s fault that the Legislature didn’t approve a bill keeping the agencies open.



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