Texas Senate approves, again, bill to limit local property tax hikes

The Texas Senate on Monday approved legislation that would require cities, counties and special government districts to get voter approval for property tax rate hikes of 4 percent or more.

Current law allows residents to petition for a tax ratification election for increases of 8 percent or more. Senate Bill 1 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would cut the so-called rollback rate in half and make the elections automatic.

“Property tax payers are crying out for relief,” Bettencourt said. “The public knows that if there’s a case that’s made from elected officials that they should spend more of their hard-earned money, they’ll vote for it. But if there’s not such a case there should be protection” for taxpayers, he said.

SB 1 was approved shortly after 9 p.m. on a 19-12 vote, with all Republicans but Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, voting in favor and all Democrats opposed.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed repeatedly for the bill during the regular session and the Senate passed a bill in March that would have set the automatic rollback election trigger 5 percent tax rate hikes.

The House, however, passed a watered-down version that did not become law.

Between Democrats who see the bill as an attack on cities and some centrist and rural House Republicans who view it as an affront to local control, the bill may not have the votes in the House.

On Monday, Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, noted that the bill is unlikely to save a substantial amount of money for taxpayers because a majority of property tax levies in Texas comes from school districts, which are not included in the bill.

“Why are we focused on cities and counties when the solution is to fix the school finance system?” he said. “Over the years, the state has diminished its contribution toward education and imposed the burden on school districts.”

Sen. Jose Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said the ability of cities and counties to meet public safety needs could be impeded by what he called an arbitrary 4 percent rate increase to trigger a rollback election.

“I think it’s an artificial rate. I’m not sure how you came to that rate,” he said.

The Senate voted 17-14 to approve an amendment by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, that would exempt more small taxing jurisdictions from the bill.

The bill originally exempted cities, counties and special districts with fewer than $10 million in annual property tax revenue. Perry’s amendment, which expanded the exemption to those with $20 million in combined property and sales tax revenue, was approved over objections from several Republicans, including Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville.

“I want to treat all of them the same. I’m not going to go back and say some of you have to vote to opt in,” Burton said.

Senators also adopted two related amendments:

• Small jurisdictions that fall under the $20 million cap would be required to hold an election on whether to opt in to SB 1’s rollback election requirement. The change was proposed by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway.

• An amendment by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would require those smaller governments to hold a rollback election for any property tax increase above 8 percent, eliminating the need for citizen petition forcing the vote.

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