As a bill to limit city and county property tax increases is advancing in this summer’s special legislative session, local government officials from across the state are making a last-minute push to derail the measure, arguing it would harm public safety.
Recreating an event that helped stymie the proposal during the regular session, dozens of sheriffs, police chiefs, mayors and county commissioners held a Wednesday morning rally at the Capitol to oppose Senate Bill 1, which would require cities, counties and special districts to get voter approval for tax hikes above a certain level.
The House version of the bill sets the level at 6 percent, while the Senate has already approved a version by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, lowering the so-called rollback rate to 4 percent. Currently, voters can petition to force a rollback rate election for increases above 8 percent, but the referendums aren’t automatic, as they would be under SB 1.
About two hours after the rally, the agenda-setting House Calendars Committee scheduled a floor debate on the bill for Saturday and approved a special rule preventing amendments. If approved by the lower chamber, the bill would go back to the Senate, which would have the option of approving the House version or asking for a conference committee to negotiate the differences.
The Calendars Committee vote marked a major step backward for the local officials who went to the Capitol on Wednesday. At the rally, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said the bill would “strangle local cities and county governments” and hinder support for public safety efforts, the biggest expense for most local governments.
“If they cut it to 4 percent, you’re going to have to say, ‘Sorry, we’re going to provide less sheriff’s deputies. We can’t do as much for roads,’” Shea said.
No. 1 priority
Gov. Greg Abbott has listed property tax reform as his No. 1 priority for the special session, and the proposal has already made it further than it did in the five-month regular session that ended in May.
In both sessions, the Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, quickly passed restrictive property tax increase measures authored by Bettencourt. In the regular session, the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee watered down the bill by removing the rollback rate provisions and advancing a version focused on making changes to the notifications that local governments must give taxpayers.
Two weeks ago, however, the same committee approved the version headed to the floor on Saturday, lowering the rollback rate to 6 percent and making the tax elections automatic. It also expanded an exemption for small cities and counties.
Conservatives hoping to change the bill on the House floor to align with the Senate version questioned House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, on Wednesday over a special rule preventing amendments. On high-profile or contentious pieces of legislation, the Calendars Committee often limits amendments or debate, allowing the House leadership to control the floor fight. But it rarely blocks amendments altogether.
Preventing floor amendments would shield Republicans who oppose further lowering the rollback rate from having to vote against proposals to do just that, which could make them targets in a GOP primary.
The rule can be challenged and would have to be approved by two-thirds of House members.
About half of the 20 items on Abbott’s agenda for the special session seek in some way to take power or prerogative away from local governments.
In addition to SB 1, there are proposals to prevent cities from regulating tree removal on private property, to place limits on local government spending and to make it harder for cities to annex outlying areas without residents’ approval.
For some of the local officials at the Capitol on Wednesday, the agenda amounts to an assault on local control, once a rallying cry for Republicans like Abbott who were unhappy with directives from Washington during the Obama administration.
“What works in Dallas or Houston won’t work in every city in Texas. That’s why the state should not try to micromanage every city and override the decisions made by the local voters,” said Live Oak Mayor Mary Dennis, president of the Texas Municipal League. “We are the reason that Texas is great. It’s because of Texas cities.”
Dennis’ comments come days after Patrick said on Fox News that liberal cities are the source of America’s problems.
“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” Patrick said. “And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city councilmen and women.”
The property tax bill, however, has angered local officials from both parties. Jackson County Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback, a Republican, said at Wednesday’s rally that he opposes the bill because it would make it harder for law enforcement agencies to deal with such growing problems as handling suspects and victims with mental health issues.
“The fastest-growing problem that many of us have, especially sheriffs, is the mental health problem in the state of Texas. These are real and valid issues we face as Texans today,” said Louderback, legislative director for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. “First and foremost, let’s protect our citizens, let’s find good government in this process, let’s work together for the good of all Texans.”