The specter of a special legislative session will linger into the weekend, after the House again delayed a vote on a controversial property tax bill that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says must pass by May 29.
Patrick said this week that he wants to see movement on that bill and the “bathroom bill” before the Senate passes a crucial measure that would keep several state agencies from shutting down this summer. Failing to pass that bill would likely force Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session.
Government and finance experts, meanwhile, are taking issue with the math Patrick used to tell Texans that his preferred version of the bill could save them tens of thousands of dollars.
Senate Bill 2 — the property tax legislation — was slated for a House vote on Friday. But state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, instead kicked it back to the House Ways and Means Committee he chairs, where lawmakers made one small tweak and sent it back to be rescheduled for a House vote.
Bonnen said the bill likely won’t come back to the House until Sunday or Monday, and that the tweak was a safeguard meant to protect the legislation from being killed on a technicality.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who authored SB 2, said the bill is too important to homeowners and businesses to go two years before changes are made.
"The longer this is drawn out, the more likely a special session is," he said. "That's not rocket science."
But Bonnen also said the House is not letting Patrick’s threats influence the lower chamber’s actions. His committee stripped from the Senate version of the bill provisions that would require cities and counties to get voter approval for their property tax rates if revenues exceed a certain threshold. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has called those provisions key to providing Texans with “property tax relief.”
Bonnen says such "rollbacks" do no such thing, and that a city or county could hit the threshold for seeking voter approval without even changing its tax rate — if there was a significant increase in local property values.
The Senate version of the bill says a 5 percent increase in property tax collections must trigger an election on the new rate. The House committee version leaves that threshold at 8 percent, its current rate, and leaves the decision of whether to hold an election up to petitioning constituents.
Experts question savings estimate
At a press conference this week where he said he was sticking up for Texans begging for property tax relief, Patrick said the Senate version of the bill would save the average homeowner $20,000 a year. When The Texas Tribune asked Patrick’s office to explain the origins of that figure, a staffer indicated the lieutenant governor meant to say $20,000 over 20 years.
After the Tribune asked for more information on the clarified number, Patrick’s office released a single sheet of paper titled “Rollback Rate Analysis” with a table showing the alleged savings. In the analysis, the formulas used to calculate a rollback rate are applied to a hypothetical homeowner's tax bill. But rollback rates aren't based on individual tax bills, either in current law or the version of SB 2 that Patrick supports.
“That calculation is deeply flawed,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which opposes the provisions.
The analysis suggests taxing entities would increase tax collections more than they typically do, according to government and public finance experts. Also, the table’s $20,000 conclusion doesn't take into account several other factors that will affect homeowners’ tax bills, including city and county budget needs, property value changes and local politics. And each of those variables will likely play out differently in different taxing jurisdictions.
“This calculation certainly does not portray what an ‘average’ homeowner could expect in any given year, to say nothing of experiencing these ‘savings’ every year for the next 20 years,” said Dick Lavine, a senior fiscal analyst for the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities.
An uncertain fate
Bettencourt said the tax relief comes from slowing the increased overall tax revenues that each city and county bring in.
"As values go up, it's trying to bring tax rates down," he said.
As of Friday afternoon, the property tax bill was still waiting to be rescheduled in the House. Plenty of bills die waiting for scheduling, but Bonnen said he worked out a deal with the committee that sets the schedule to prevent that from happening.
Bonnen said he told Calendars Committee members he would oppose any amendments to SB 2 in exchange for them agreeing to get the legislation back to the floor. His colleagues could try to use amendments to add back the automatic election provisions that Bonnen's committee stripped from the bill.
"We'll just see what happens," Bonnen said.
Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League and the Center for Public Policy Priorities have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.