Legislative stand-off intensifies as House delays property tax bill

May 19, 2017
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the House sponsor of Senate Bill 2, carries on a conversation on his cell phone as he walks on the House floor Thursday. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In an escalation of the legislative brinkmanship between Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, the House on Friday delayed until Sunday or later a floor vote on a property tax bill Patrick has demanded the House approve.

Patrick, who leads the Senate, had previously threatened to force a special session of the Legislature unless the House acted quickly to approve the property tax measure, Senate Bill 2, as well as legislation that would restrict transgender Texans from using the bathrooms of their choice. The property tax bill was scheduled to come to the floor this week.

But Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who is carrying the House version of SB 2, on Friday sent it back to the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs, saying it needed a do-over in the committee “out of an abundance of caution” in case opponents of the bill raise procedural challenges.

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Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, on Thursday questioned whether the committee handled the bill properly when it was initially approved, prompting the delay. Bonnen’s committee re-approved the measure in a 9-2 vote Friday, but House rules will prevent it from coming back to the floor until Sunday at the earliest, he said.

Asked about how the move would affect negotiations between Straus and Patrick and the potential for a special session, Bonnen said the House was working at its own pace.

“The House is not taking actions due to demands of the lieutenant governor. The House is taking action because we believe in adding transparency and engagement by the local taxpayer,” Bonnen said. “The House has historically not responded to demands and threats. What the House responds to is positive public policy that helps Texans, and I believe Senate Bill 2 is exceptional public policy for Texas taxpayers.”

Patrick’s threat to force a special session if the House does not meet his demands centered on an unrelated housekeeping measure known as the Sunset scheduling bill that, if not passed, could result in the closure of several state agencies. Thanks to a revolt of tea party-aligned Republicans, the House failed to pass its version of the bill in time to meet a key legislative deadline last week, leaving Senate Bill 310 as the only vehicle for passing the measure by the end of the regular session.

Patrick this week said he would hold up the bill until the House acted on his priorities, an ultimatum Straus called “regrettable.”

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The Senate has not yet acted on the bill, which means it almost certainly cannot return to the House in time to meet a Saturday deadline for House committees to consider Senate bills. If a deal to prevent a special session is brokered next week, however, both chambers could vote to suspend their rules and pass the necessary legislation. The regular session ends May 29.

Under the Senate-approved version of the property tax bill, cities and counties would be forced to hold elections approving property tax increases of 5 percent or more. Currently, such tax ratification elections apply only to increases of 8 percent or more, and they do not happen automatically. Residents must petition to make them happen.

Bonnen stripped that language out of the bill after it became apparent that a majority of his Ways and Means Committee did not support such tight restrictions on local elected officials. Instead, he focused the bill on increasing transparency about how property taxes increase by giving taxpayers clearer information on the appraisal and rate-setting processes.

Bonnen said he personally favors language similar to the Senate version, but that it likely doesn’t have enough support to be approved by the full House, where Democrats and some rural Republicans oppose it.