Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: It takes more than three high officials to make Texas laws

What started as unity at the top of Texas government is now in the hands of state legislators, who are better known for killing bills and changing the original intentions. Case in point: property taxes.

From left: Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick; Gov. Greg Abbott; House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton; and Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, speak at a news conference addressing property tax reform.

Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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The state’s top leaders spent the beginning of the legislative session talking about unity, comity and how they were on the same track, ready to work, and even filing identical copies of important bills in the House and the Senate.

Now that the 20-week session is entering its second quarter — believe it or not, it’s 25 percent complete — the other 180 elected officials in the building are starting to raise their heads and make their thoughts known. Predictably, differences of opinion are starting to show.

The budget-writing committees — House Appropriations and Senate Finance — have been at work for a while, but the rest of the panels are just getting started. More than 2,300 bills have been filed. They’re being referred to committees for consideration. Most won’t go into the law books if past sessions are any indication.

The Legislature is where ideas go to die. Or to be turned into something different.

Look at the property tax legislation. The Senate’s version is out of committee and on its way to the full chamber. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, will need to perform some quick salesmanship to gain the support of enough senators to get full consideration there.

In its current form, the legislation would require automatic elections allowing voters to approve any property tax revenue increases that exceed 2.5 percent. It would apply to counties, cities, community college and school districts, and so on. It would exempt small government entities — those that raise less than $15 million from property taxes. It would also make some changes to the way appraisal districts work and the way tax bills are presented — all designed to make things clearer and to give voters a stronger say when taxes might rise.

That number — 2.5 percent — came from Gov. Greg Abbott last session, when the House and Senate were unsuccessfully trying to set the trigger at 4 percent (the Senate) or 6 percent (the House). Local officials don’t like any of those numbers, arguing that the state is cutting their revenue supply lines and that the state has created a steady stream of “unfunded mandates” (expensive assignments the locals have to pay for). Those local officials also say their voters can already control local budgeting by electing or defeating the officials they like and don’t like.

They didn’t find much empathy last week from Bettencourt’s Property Tax Committee, but those local folks have more chances ahead.

While the Senate committee advanced its legislation, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee publicly expressed doubts about the key number in that bill, a bit of foreshadowing from the lower chamber as the full upper chamber gets ready to vote.

That chairman, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said he’s not crazy about an across-the-board teacher pay raise advanced by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. And he has issues, let’s say, with the property tax proposal laid out by Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — the bill Bettencourt’s committee approved Monday.

“I don’t know if it’s 2.5 percent or not because I do know that puts a real stranglehold on our county officials, our city officials,” Zerwas told Evan Smith on The Texas Tribune's "Point of Order" podcast. “But I do think they’re going to get comfortable with a number that’s less than 8.”

Current law allows voters to roll back property tax increases greater than 8 percent, but the rate is high and the method is cumbersome. Voters have to get enough petitions together to call the election, then have to win the election. And the trigger rate was set when inflation rates were higher. Even members like Zerwas, who are sympathetic to the local governments, say 8 percent is too high.

It’s not just the House, either. State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, abstained from the committee vote, saying he likes the idea of limits but thinks 2.5 percent is too low.

This is how it goes, even when the folks at the top of the government say they’ve agreed to legislation drawing a line at 2.5 percent. It makes for good public relations, especially at a time when rancor is more common than collaboration. But governors, lieutenant governors and speakers have to play by the same rules as everybody else: They have to win the support of most of the 180 other people in the legislative ranks, and they’ll have to make changes to get it.

And those folks, all with their own opinions about property taxes and everything else, are just getting started.

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