House clears bill on property tax elections, top Abbott priority

Updated Aug 14, 2017
Jay Janner
State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, left, and state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, talk about property tax reform at the Capitol on Monday. JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Texas House on Monday gave final approval to a bill that will require voter approval when larger cities and counties raise property taxes above 6 percent, but only after a tense fight over a move to cut off debate without considering amendments that would have included smaller jurisdictions.

The advance of Senate Bill 1 brought Gov. Greg Abbott one step closer to his top priority for the special session, but not all of Monday’s news favored the governor.

It became apparent that Abbott’s call for a cap on state government spending, a high priority for conservatives in the Legislature, had died a quiet death in the House, where time ran out after a Democratic point of order had derailed the legislation days earlier.

FIRST READING: No sweat if Gov. Abbott falls shy of special session Shangri-La. The base is chill with Shangri-Lite.

Also Monday, supporters of limits to transgender friendly bathrooms all but conceded defeat, saying they hoped to add restrictions as an amendment while acknowledging that there appear to be no bills eligible for such action.

Abbott began the day with five of his 20 special session priorities approved — extending five state regulatory agencies, restricting abortion coverage in insurance, requiring stricter reporting of abortion complications, enacting tougher penalties for mail-in ballot fraud and limiting city annexation powers.

A sixth priority, requiring specific patient approval for hospital do-not-resuscitate orders, was close to final approval in the Legislature.

And House-Senate negotiators, meeting late Sunday and early Monday, came to an agreement on how to proceed on school finance issues, avoiding an impasse on key issues with the special session ending Wednesday.

The agreement also freed the property tax election bill, which had been delayed Sunday as part of the negotiations, to receive a final House vote after initial approval was given late Saturday.

However, moments after debate began on SB 1, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, announced that he had enough signatures to force a vote and “move this bill directly to a conference committee” with the Senate.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of tea party-supported representatives, strongly objected, saying the move was an effort to stifle their voices and avoid voting on amendments that would give more Texans a say over property tax increases.

“I hope the citizens of Texas are also listening to this. More games are being played in your Texas Capitol,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, author of one of the amendments. “There are members of this body who are moving to silence folks like myself who believe folks’ property taxes are too high.”

The House sponsor of SB 1, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said the legislation needed to advance quickly to correct current law, which only allows voters to petition for a rollback election when property taxes are increased by 8 percent or more.

“Presently, we have a rollback rate that is of no effect. Tell me the last time someone succeeded when they petitioned on a rollback rate at 8 percent. It doesn’t happen,” Bonnen said. “If we pass this bill, we are taking it to a hard stop at 6 (percent).”

The 6 percent trigger would have led to rollback elections in 21 cities and four counties in 2016, he added.

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The House version of the bill would apply to local governments with more than $25 million a year in tax revenue for maintenance and operations — affecting an estimated 35 cities and 50 counties.

Several of the Freedom Caucus amendments would have allowed citizens of smaller jurisdictions to opt in for automatic rollback elections “to allow every person in Texas to be a part of this bill,” said Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving.

The House, however, voted 95-43 to end debate on SB 1, which was quickly given final House approval 105-41.

SB 1 next returns to the Senate, which will call for a conference committee to work out differences — primarily over the election trigger rate. Republican senators want a 4 percent trigger, while the House chose the 6 percent rate.

Also Monday, the House gave final approval to a bill that would extend the life of a task force to study the state’s high rate of pregnancy-related deaths. Senate Bill 17 returns to the Senate to consider changes made by the House.

Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, marked the occasion by honoring several Texans who lost a family member to pregnancy-related complications.

“Today, we are turning their pain into purpose,” Thierry said. “Their lives will forever make a difference in the future lives of all Texans.”