Limit on prop­erty tax move for­ward in House

Po­lice, city lead­ers rally against leg­is­la­tion as threat to pub­lic safety.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Sean Collins Walsh scwalsh@states­man.com

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.

Re-cre­at­ing 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 Cap- itol on Wed­nes­day. At the rally, Travis County Com­mis- sioner Brigid Shea said the bill would “stran­gle lo­cal cities and county gov­ern­ments” and hin­der sup­port for pub- lic safety ef­forts, the big­gest ex­pense for most lo­cal gov- ern­ments.

“If they cut it to 4 per- cent, you’re go­ing to have to say, ‘Sorry, we’re go­ing to pro­vide less sher­iff ’s dep- uties. We can’t do as much for roads,’” Shea said.

The top 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 au­thored­byBet­ten­court.Inthe 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 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, theCal­en­darsCom­mit­tee­often 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.

Lo­cal con­trol

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.”

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