Law­mak­ers deny Har­vey-ham­mered Tex­ans tax break

Pol­i­tics doomed bills re­quir­ing reap­praisals

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Jeremy Wal­lace

AUSTIN — Own­ers of nearly 300,000 homes dam­aged by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in Texas won’t see any break in their prop­erty taxes be­cause of po­lit­i­cal wran­gling this year in the state Leg­is­la­ture over com­pletely un­re­lated is­sues — in­clud­ing, one Hous­ton Repub­li­can says, the bath­room bill.

A prop­erty tax re­form bill that would have re­quired all lo­cal gov­ern­ments to reap­praise dam­aged homes and busi­nesses and lower the tax bills came within a sin­gle round of votes on four dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions. If the manda­tory reap­praisal pro­posal had be­come law, it would have all but as­sured that the tens of thou­sands of homes and busi­nesses dam­aged or de­stroyed statewide be­cause of Har­vey would have re­ceived a re­duc­tion in prop­erty taxes this year.

But it never passed, and ac­cord­ing to the state law­maker who came up with the idea, it’s be­cause of the bath­room bill. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Hous­ton, lays the blame on Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick, who she con­tends was try­ing to black­ball her bills.

“I have lit­tle doubt its slow death in the Se­nate is be­cause of so­cial is­sues like the bath­room bill,” said Davis, whose dis­trict flooded badly dur­ing the 2015 Me­mo­rial Day storms and the 2016 Tax Day storms.

Cur­rently, reap­praisals af­ter nat­u­ral dis­as­ters are op­tional for lo­cal gov­ern­ments and most are like Har­ris County and Aransas County in say­ing they won’t do it be­cause they can­not af­ford it.

A home in Hous­ton that

was val­ued at $200,000 be­fore the hur­ri­cane, but worth just $30,000 af­ter, would have seen a $700 cut just in school taxes, ac­cord­ing to the Texas Tax­pay­ers and Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion, which strongly backed the Davis pro­posal.

“It was re­ally one of my No. 1 priorities,” said Davis, whose orig­i­nal bill would have taken ef­fect Sept. 1.

But that is likely why the bill never cleared the Se­nate, she said. Davis was a vo­cal op­po­nent of the so-called bath­room bill that was a top pri­or­ity in the Texas Se­nate. That bill be­came the cen­ter­piece of the war of wills be­tween House and Se­nate lead­ers in both the fi­nal days of the reg­u­lar ses­sion in May and then again dur­ing the spe­cial ses­sion in Au­gust. The bill would have re­quired peo­ple to use the bath­room listed on their birth cer­tifi­cate, even if they are trans­gen­der. Some busi­ness lead­ers or­ga­nized op­po­si­tion to that bill, which stalled in the House, warn­ing it could re­sult in boy­cotts of Texas be­cause many saw the bill as a form of dis­crim­i­na­tion against trans­gen­der Tex­ans.

“Some House mem­bers paid the price,” Davis said. “I never sup­ported the bath­room bill non­sense and I was out­spo­ken about it.” One last shot

It’s not that Davis’s bill didn’t have broad sup­port in a Leg­is­la­ture that pines to hand out tax cuts. In April, the Davis bill — HB 513 — first passed the full House 148 to 0. A month ear­lier the Se­nate passed a sim­i­lar bill by Sen. Van Tay­lor, R-Plano, that was filed months af­ter Davis’s bill. The Se­nate passed Tay­lor’s SB 717 by a 31-0 vote.

If the House passed Tay­lor’s ver­sion with­out Davis’ name on the bill, it would have gone to Gov. Greg Ab­bott. Sim­i­larly, if the

“I have lit­tle doubt its slow death in the Se­nate is be­cause of so­cial is­sues like the bath­room bill.” Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Hous­ton

Se­nate passed the Davis ver­sion, it would have been sent to Ab­bott. Nei­ther cham­ber budged, and both bills died de­spite be­ing nearly iden­ti­cal ex­cept for the spon­sor’s name.

But that wasn’t the last chance for the idea.

On Aug. 11, two weeks be­fore Har­vey made land­fall, the House again passed an­other ver­sion of Davis’ idea with­out op­po­si­tion and sent it to the Se­nate. Although the spe­cial ses­sion had five days re­main­ing, the bill never was sent to a com­mit­tee or voted on in the Se­nate.

But Davis said the House made yet one last shot, when they amended an­other prop­erty tax re­form bill and in­cluded the reap­praisal re­quire­ment. The Se­nate, how­ever, voted not to con­cur on the amended prop­erty tax re­form pro­posal. That tax re­form plan died af­ter the House ended the spe­cial ses­sion nearly a full day early and un­der a hail of crit­i­cism from Pa­trick di­rected at House lead­ers for not fin­ish­ing prop­erty tax re­forms or the bath­room bill.

Davis said thou­sands of Tex­ans would have lower tax bills if Pa­trick had not played po­lit­i­cal games with her bill.

Pa­trick did not agree to be in­ter­viewed for this story.

But a top aide to Pa­trick said the bill’s fail­ure is on the House. The House had Tay­lor’s bill lined up dur­ing the reg­u­lar spring ses­sion and could have passed it and there would have been no need for the Se­nate to pass the Davis bill, said Sherry Sylvester, a se­nior ad­vi­sor to Pa­trick.

And in the spe­cial ses­sion, Sylvester said Pa­trick “had hoped” to add the dis­as­ter reap­praisal bill onto the big­ger prop­erty tax bill as an amend­ment, but the House ad­journed early. Pa­trick never said that pub­licly him­self.

State Rep. Den­nis Bon­nen, R-An­gle­ton, said he doesn’t buy that ex­pla­na­tion and says the Se­nate is guilty of en­gag­ing in “fake ju­nior high pol­i­tics” be­cause they were up­set with Davis. Twenty four bills Davis spon­sored passed the House, but the Se­nate passed only three of those bills dur­ing the reg­u­lar ses­sion. It is a clear pat­tern, said Bon­nen, chair­man of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, which has ju­ris­dic­tion of tax re­form pol­icy.

Worse, Bon­nen said in the spe­cial ses­sion, Tay­lor never filed his bill again, and the Se­nate didn’t lift a fin­ger to try to pass the Davis ver­sion.

“It was the only bill that would have pro­vided Texas res­i­dents real prop­erty tax relief, yet the Se­nate didn’t even try,” Bon­nen said. Frus­trat­ing re­minder

For sup­port­ers of the leg­is­la­tion, the fail­ure of a bill nearly ev­ery­one agreed to and one that would have pro­vided some relief to hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple is a frus­trat­ing re­minder of a key les­son in pol­i­tics.

“The process does not al­ways re­ward good ideas,” said Dale Craymer, pres­i­dent of the Texas Tax­pay­ers and Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion, a non-profit group based in Austin that was one of 13 groups to ad­vo­cate for the bill dur­ing a House com­mit­tee hear­ing in March. No group pub­licly op­posed the leg­is­la­tion dur­ing the hear­ing.

Texas law al­ready al­lows coun­ties, cities and other lo­cal gov­ern­ments to reap­praise prop­er­ties af­ter a storm, but few ever do be­cause of the lost rev­enues that it could re­sult in and be­cause

“I can as­sure you we’re strongly en­cour­ag­ing Har­ris County to have reap­praisals for all of you.” Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick

of how ex­pen­sive and time con­sum­ing the reap­praisal process could be dur­ing a time gov­ern­ments are try­ing to fi­nal­ize their bud­gets. If gov­ern­ments do the reap­praisals, the full cost is on the lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

“It’s not a very work­able so­lu­tion,” Har­ris County Judge Ed Em­mett, a Repub­li­can, said about why he has not vol­un­tar­ily called for the reap­praisals in Har­ris. “It’s not that I don’t have sym­pa­thy for peo­ple and what they’ve lost.”

He said the prob­lem is the reap­praisals would cost $10 mil­lion in a county as big and ur­ban as Har­ris County. Plus the county would lose rev­enue from tax col­lec­tions at a time it most needs the money to ad­dress the nat­u­ral dis­as­ter re­cov­ery.

He added that prop­erty own­ers still will get the ben­e­fit of the Jan. 1 ap­praisals for the next year’s taxes. That al­most cer­tainly will re­sult in lower tax bills for home­own­ers with dam­aged prop­er­ties next year.

Sim­i­larly, in Aransas County — where Har­vey made land­fall as a Cat­e­gory 4 and de­mol­ished 36 per­cent of all homes and busi­nesses — there will be no reap­praisal. Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. said there isn’t time or money to get it done and said it would only hurt tax rev­enues at a time when ev­ery source of fund­ing the county re­lies on is in jeop­ardy.

“All of our in­come is in the toi­let,” Mills said of a county that re­lies heav­ily on tourists to gen­er­ate sales taxes and fill ren­tal prop­er­ties.

Mont­gomery and Fort Bend coun­ties have taken a dif­fer­ent route. Both passed res­o­lu­tions to do reap­praisals for af­fected ar­eas. Katy ISD and the Katy city coun­cil are among other lo­cal gov­ern­ments that have re­quested reap­praisals.

Speak­ing to about 1,300 peo­ple in Hous­ton on Tues­day night, Pa­trick made clear he thinks coun­ties — in­clud­ing Har­ris — should be de­cid­ing on their own to reap­praise dam­aged prop­erty.

“I can as­sure you we’re strongly en­cour­ag­ing Har­ris County to have reap­praisals for all of you,” Pa­trick said at the meet­ing at the St. John Vian­ney Catholic Church in Hous­ton.

If Har­ris County and oth­ers do refuse, Pa­trick said “we will pass a law in next ses­sion” to make sure they do reap­praisals. ‘One-trick pony’ act

At that same meet­ing, State Sen. Paul Bet­ten­court, R-Hous­ton, said he too will be look­ing for a way to de­mand all gov­ern­ments re­assess af­ter storms.

“We’re go­ing to come up with a statute that’s go­ing to make it au­to­matic,” he said.

Em­mett said he’s get­ting a lit­tle tired of both Bet­ten­court and Pa­trick and their “one-trick pony” act where they put pres­sure on county gov­ern­ments to cut taxes when it is re­ally school taxes driv­ing the bulk of peo­ple’s tax bills. He said if they try to force all coun­ties to reap­praise it will be bad pol­icy that will hurt the al­most 2 mil­lion peo­ple that live in un­in­cor­po­rated Har­ris County.

Davis was not at that meet­ing, but she said what Pa­trick and Bet­ten­court are say­ing they want pub­licly is some­thing they al­ready could have made the law of the land but they dropped the ball.

“With­out hes­i­ta­tion I can say I will be fil­ing this bill again,” Davis said.

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