Property tax debate starts in Texas House

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– The debate over the property tax cap reform bill Senate Bill 2 began with a quick disclaimer and some early heat from Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio).

“Small businesses in America are getting taxed out of business, my own commercial property increased 200 percent within a 24-month period,” said Gutierrez to the bill’s sponsor Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock). “When will we have tax relief for small businesses, when will we have tax relief for people with homes, because this bill is not tax relief.”

The legislation would require a public vote by cities, counties and other taxing entities on proposed tax hikes above 3.5 percent, or two percent for school districts. But there was a disclaimer.

“The bill does not actually lower property taxes, right?” asks Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie).

Burrows responded by restating that SB 2 does not lower anyone’s property taxes.

“This bill is not intended to do that. It is simply giving people more insight to what’s going on, more opportunities to engage into the process and a little more control over the process when property taxes go up, a little more opportunity to have their voices heard,” said Burrows.

From the beginning of the session, several elected officials in Texas have opposed the plan. Some have even threatened to cut funding for public safety if the measure is signed into law.
On Monday, Austin mayor Steve Adler backed off that threat a bit.

“We are not going to let any officers go, but our ability to add the number of officers we want, at the level we want is going to be impacted,” said Adler. “The five new fire stations we want to open and have to put firefighters in them is going to be something that becomes impossible for us to do in the timing we had wanted.”

Gov. Greg Abbott visited with lawmakers on the House floor before debate began on the tax reform plan. SB 2 is one of his six emergency items and a status check shows that as of right now none of the six have been sent to the governor for his signature. But they are making progress. 

With Tuesday’s vote the property tax cap reform is expected to join Hurricane Harvey relief in a conference committee. Funding for school safety has cleared the Senate and is awaiting House committee action. Education reform including a teacher pay increase is out of the House but the Senate is still considering a different approach, and a Senate mental health bill is awaiting a House hearing.

Abbott could call a special session if some of the items fail to reach his desk.

Exemptions to SB 2 were granted during the House debate, including community colleges and hospital districts. Counties with populations under 25,000 are also exempted. 

The first amendment approved almost guarantees the legislation will go to conference committee. It requires anyone offering to help a property owner appeal an appraisal to be an attorney. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt has a property tax consultant business and is not expected to sign off on the change.