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Analysis: It’s never the ending that you expect

The Texas Legislature's special session ended with a bang, but it wasn't the sound of the property tax bill the governor was hoping for. Will he call state lawmakers back for more?

Texas House members huddled near the dais on Aug. 15, 2017. The House adjourned sine die one day before the Legislature's special session would have been forced to conclude.

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The Texas Legislature finished its special session as it ended its regular session earlier this year — in a fundamental disagreement over how to control the property taxes that Texas voters hate so much, and in political knots that consistently pitted a socially conservative Senate against a House controlled by establishment Republicans.

“The blame game is just beginning, and why I’d want to get between two groups of elephants, I don’t know,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, on Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick punctuated the end of the session with a fiery attack on the House in general and on House Speaker Joe Straus in particular, saying the Republicans in the lower chamber will have to answer for their votes in next year’s elections.

"Thank goodness Travis didn't have the speaker at the Alamo," Patrick said at a news conference. "He would've been the first one over the wall."

He ended the regular session calling for a special session to take on bathrooms, property taxes and other issues. On Tuesday night, he declined to repeat that plea, saying it would be up to Gov. Greg Abbott to decide whether another special session is needed. Patrick, who entered 2017 with property taxes and bathrooms at the top of his list of priorities, had already turned his attention to politics.

Straus defended the House without trying to fix blame: “The House was thoughtful, respectful and decisive in its solution-oriented approach.”

The property tax issue that topped Abbott’s list of priorities turned out to be this session’s Humpty Dumpty. Nobody could fix it.

The Senate’s approach has been to limit how much local governments can increase their property taxes without voter approval. The House’s focus: increasing the state’s share of the costs of public education, thus lowering pressure on the local school districts that have to cover what the state won’t.

Neither approach survived the regular session — or this summer’s special session. All that’s left are the inquiries into why a Republican House and a Republican Senate couldn’t deliver on a Republican governor’s top priority.

When it came down to it, the House reluctantly agreed to the Senate’s watered-down version of the school finance approach — one that is unlikely to have an appreciable effect on local school property taxes — by far the largest single component of Texans’ overall property tax bills. That legislation includes a must-do item for the special session, pumping $212 million into health insurance for retired teachers, puts some money into charter schools, and so on.

It’s not going to lower your school property taxes, in large part because senators weren’t willing — as the House was — to add $1.8 billion to this what the state spends on public schools.

Also, the money needed for that school finance patch, as with other expensive proposals, was shaky. Texas lawmakers are loath to increase taxes — these people fairly represent the state’s voters in that regard. That leaves them with two main options: Using the state’s savings account, the so-called Rainy Day Fund, or using accounting tricks, deferring state obligations to Medicaid managed-care organizations or to the schools themselves.

“The blame game is just beginning, and why I’d want to get between two groups of elephants, I don’t know.”

— Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston

There isn’t enough money to make truly significant dents in local property taxes for schools, cities or counties.

The other half of what would have been the grand bargain of this Legislature was the property tax bill the Senate hoped to pass.

That legislation would have limited local governments’ ability to raise property taxes without voter approval. In the Senate version, that cap was on tax increases of 4 percent or more. In the House’s version, it would have been 6 percent. Both bills would have exempted most Texas cities, most Texas counties and, in the House version, all community college districts. Cities and counties collecting less than $20 million in property taxes per year would’ve been exempted in the Senate version; the House wanted a $25 million exemption.

Neither would have cut your property taxes; rather, they would give voters some say over the size of future increases in a relatively small number of the state’s cities and counties.

Current law has no provision for automatic elections on rising taxes but allows voters to petition for rollback elections when taxes rise more than 8 percent.

Legislators had agreed on one thing that might have been useful to taxpayers: a transparency law that would have made clear the differences between current taxes and taxes proposed by the various governments collecting them.

The Texas House quit the special session a day early. Leaders there, clearly frustrated by long and fruitless negotiations with their counterparts in the Senate and the governor’s office, voted out a watered-down school finance bill and turned down the Senate’s request for a parley on property taxes. They said they had decided another day of talks wouldn’t change things and voted to go home.

That left the Senate and the governor without their third partner.

They did have the Senate’s version of the House’s school finance legislation on its way to Gov. Greg Abbott for consideration.

And they had what amounted to a take-it-or-leave-it offer on property taxes from the Texas House — a choice between current law and the House’s version of the Senate’s property tax bill.

The Senate opted for current law by declining to accept the House’s final property tax offer. They decided to go home a day early, a few hours after the House did.

That leaves it to the governor, who is no doubt getting buried in requests in favor of and against calling another special session. Abbott listed 20 items for lawmakers to do in this one, and he made it clear that property tax was his big priority. They knocked out enough of the things on his list that spokesman John Wittman said, "Our office believes this special session has produced a far better Texas than before."

Abbott will decide whether it’s enough, and whether calling legislators back would do any good. In the end, he and the Legislature couldn’t reconcile their differences on a problem that has vexed the state for decades. It always comes down to the deadline, but they worked on this stuff for 169 days. They didn’t fail for lack of time.

Maybe they need to study it for a while.

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