Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen railed against several city leaders, county officials and first responders Wednesday for opposing a bill he says would provide Texans with greater transparency in their property tax bills.
The Angleton Republican unveiled a new version of a divisive property tax bill during a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs. And even as he defended changes to Senate Bill 2, which the upper chamber passed in an 18-12 vote, he said he doesn’t think lawmakers will pass the controversial legislation this session.
The bill was left pending in the committee after hours of testimony ended about 1:30 a.m. Thursday.
Local leaders for months have pushed back against legislative efforts to change the threshold for how much property tax revenues cities and counties can collect without voter approval. They say SB 2 will hamstring their ability to provide necessary services and afford enough first responders.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he authored the upper chamber’s version of the bill because Texans are clamoring for an end to fast-rising property tax bills. Bonnen, though, said the legislation will provide no such relief and that he couldn’t control that “someone in the Senate said it would.”
One reason for increased property tax bills is increasing property values. That allows a Texans’ tax bill to go up even when local government entities maintain or lower their tax rates. Bonnen said that creates confusion among Texans who have higher bills but hear from local leaders that tax rates are flat or going down.
“They still pay and can’t figure out who did it,” Bonnen said late Wednesday.
His version of the bill seeks to provide more information and simplify language used to describe the property tax collection process to landowners. One key change that Bonnen wants is to eliminate a property owner’s estimated tax burden, which is based on previous rates, from the property appraisals that are mailed months ahead of actual tax bills.
Dick Lavine, a senior analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, hailed that change. He said people often think the notice of their new appraised property value is their tax bill, which isn't mailed until months later.
“They are confused,” he said.
But Lavine, like many people who testified, opposed the bill over the proposed threshold of how much property tax revenue cities and counties can collect without voter approval.
The new version of the bill increases how much money a local government can collect before it is required to get voter approval when compared to the Senate version.. And instead of tying the election threshold solely to an increased percentage in the amount of revenue collected, the House version allows cities and counties also to factor in the increase Texas consumers pay for goods and services before getting voter approval.
Yet city officials and first responders spoke against the bill Wednesday morning, prompting Bonnen to repeatedly interrupt and challenge them.
“It’s very disrespectful that the mayors and the county judges and the commissioners and your lobbyists want to characterize this bill in the exact same fashion as the way it has been managed by the Senate,” Bonnen said.
Some local elected officials said that they appreciated Bonnen’s attempts to change the bill.
“You’re walking the walk,” said outgoing Frisco Mayor Maher Maso. “This is not the same process that played out in the Senate.”
But he and other officials repeated earlier arguments that the bill is another example of state leaders usurping local control. They said it ignores requirements the state places on local entities without providing funding and the fact that most property tax revenues go to school districts, which often increase taxes to make up for lawmakers’ continued decreases in education funding.
They also said that many Texans’ property tax bills are increasing not because of higher tax rates but because of increased property values on which the rates are based.
“Cities and counties have been portrayed as doing something wrong,” said Denton County Judge Mary Horn, a Republican. “We’re not. We pass a balanced budget every year.”
Later Wednesday, Bonnen said that his version was not meant as an indictment of local officials.
“That’s not at all what the case is,” Bonnen said.
Bettencourt, who authored the Senate version, on Wednesday said he hadn't had a chance to thoroughly review Bonnen's proposed changes. But he remained hopeful that the House Ways and Means Committee would pass some version.
"Like everyone else, we'll stay tuned," he said.
Sanya Mansoor and Jay Root contributed to this story.
Read related coverage:
- The Texas Senate passed a budget that would shift $1.8 billion in public education costs to local taxpayers.
- The Senate voted 18-12 in favor of a bill that would require an election if a local government entity wanted to increase some of its tax collections by 5 percent or more.
- Local governments and school districts battling the Texas Legislature over property taxes have a couple of things in common: They want local control over taxes and a more reliable partner in the state government.
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