Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: There’s more than one way to pass a tax bill in Texas

Texas legislators have two versions of their sales-tax-for-property-tax swap in motion, and if they run out of time, lawmakers have more tricks in their pocket. If they don't get the property tax cuts they want, it won't be because of end-of-session deadlines.

Chairman of the House Public Education Committee and state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, on the House floor during the House School Finance plan deliberation on April 3, 2019.
Chairman of the House Public Education Committee and state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, on the House floor during the House School Finance plan deliberation on April 3, 2019.  Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune

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.

 More in this series 

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

A constitutional amendment that would swap higher sales taxes for lower school property taxes is out of a House committee and ready for a deadline vote next week. It would require support from 100 of that chamber’s 150 to pass.

But the Ways and Means Committee that advanced that bill also passed another one that could be used to do the same thing with only 76 votes.

And if those don’t work, lawmakers could always add the tax swap to House Bill 3, the public education bill that will be up for a vote in the Senate early next week.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If the governor and Texas legislators really want this particular $5 billion tax hike to pay for this particular tax cut, they’ve got several options. And given the pushback against raising taxes, they’ll need all of their tricks.

But there are ways, even with the impending deadlines that are starting to dominate talk as the state’s 86th regular legislative session enters its last month.

The deadlines are real: Monday is the last day a House committee can vote out House bills and resolutions (the deadline for Senate bills and resolutions comes almost two weeks later). Tuesday is the last day House legislation can be added to the calendar, and any House legislation that hasn’t made it to the full House for initial debate by midnight Thursday goes into the dumpster.

You’ll hear some squalling about that, but remember, state representatives had 17 weeks to work with before the guillotine fell on their precious legislation. And the first thing they did when they got here in January was to approve the rules that include those nasty little deadlines.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One way around the time limits is to hitch a ride, by attaching the contents of a dead bill to one that’s still alive. If the tax bills associated with the education and property tax package don’t survive next week, the sponsors will be looking for other vehicles, as they are called, to which the tax bills can be attached.

Another rescue trick is to have a little pixie dust on your legislation, in the form of interest from the state’s top officials. That’s clearly the case on education and school finance. And the tax swap — a penny increase in sales taxes for a property tax cut of 15 or 20 cents — has been endorsed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker. They have more power to bend the rules than senators and representatives, and more carrots for rewarding friends and sticks for hurting foes.

If you don’t see a tax vote before this is over, it’ll be because they couldn’t muster the support they need, and not because of the deadlines in the legislative rules.

Even with the rules in place, they’ve quietly laid the groundwork for the swap. On Wednesday, Ways and Means voted out the constitutional amendment — House Joint Resolution 3 — that would allow voters to decide whether to do the sales-for-property tax swap. They also passed House Bill 4621, the legislation that would put that swap into law if voters approve the constitutional amendment.

That second bill has a provision that says it won’t take effect unless the constitutional amendment passes. Remove that provision and it’s a straight-up tax bill — one that would raise sales taxes a penny and use the money to lower school property taxes.

The constitutional amendment requires 100 votes in the House, 21 in the Senate and the assent of the state’s voters. The second requires simple majorities of the House and Senate — 76 and 16 votes, respectively — and the governor’s consent.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If none of that works, there are other ways to buy lawmakers a bit of time in spite of the compounding deadlines. For instance, there’s HB 3 — the school finance legislation — which the House has already passed and the Senate plans to debate next week. It’ll end up in a conference committee to work out differences and then will go back for final votes in the House and in the Senate.

And there’s no legal or parliamentary reason why they can’t bury the tax swap in the middle of the legislation that swap is meant to finance.

Lawmakers have plenty of reasons to worry about the proposed tax swap, but end-of-session deadlines aren’t on that list.