Harris County

Harris County ratifies “no new revenue” tax rates for the current fiscal year

Wednesday’s meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court brought to an end a two-month fight over the county’s budget and tax rates.

Harris County Administration Building in downtown Houston.

Harris County has ratified "no new revenue" tax rates for the current fiscal year. Commissioners Court voted 4-to-0 to ratify the rates, with the judge not present.

Judge Lina Hidalgo was absent from the vote due to a scheduling conflict. In her absence, Commissioner Jack Cagle led the court meeting, which lasted just over 15 minutes.

It was the first time Cagle and his fellow Republican, Tom Ramsey, attended court in well over a month. Cagle, Ramsey, and the two Democratic commissioners, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, passed the "no new revenue" tax rates without additional comments about what led to the vote.

The short meeting marked the end of a bitter fight that began in late August, when Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Harris County Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap both accused Democratic county leaders of defunding their departments by blocking rollover money from previous fiscal year.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar initially threatened to invoke Senate Bill 23. That law bans counties with more than a million residents from cutting funding to law enforcement without first going to the voters to approve the proposed budget. Failure to do so, or to withdraw the alleged budget cuts, would require the county to default to the same tax revenue levels as the previous fiscal year. Hidalgo, Ellis, and Garcia voted – over Cagle's objections, Ramsey being absent – to have the county sue Hegar. The situation appeared to resolve itself when Hegar backed off his threat temporarily to allow budget negotiations to continue.

Commissioners Court met for the first time to vote on a proposed budget and tax rates in mid-September. From that moment until the end of October, Cagle and Ramsey boycotted court meetings to deny the court's Democratic majority the state-mandated four-member quorum in order to adopt their preferred budget and tax rates.

Cagle and Ramsey initially appeared to have divergent arguments over what they sought in return for providing that quorum. Ramsey said he wanted an additional $20 million in the budget to hire sheriff's and constables' deputies. Cagle framed his objections by calling the Democrats' proposed budget a $257 million tax increase, even though the budget included tax rate cuts.

Democrats continued to seek Republican participation even after the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, in the hopes that a compromise on the tax rates would allow them to modify the budget accordingly.

On October 4, Cagle offered a compromise proposal on the budget, which appeared to offer a way out of the impasse. He requested a special discussion-only meeting of commissioners court to debate his proposal, so that the Democrats could not simply declare a quorum present and adopt their own plan over his objections. Hidalgo called such a meeting for October 17. But when Garcia offered his own counterproposal, Cagle and Ramsey interpreted Garcia's accompanying comments as an ultimatum and declined to attend the special meeting.

The clock ran out on October 28, the state's deadline for setting tax rates.

The political implications of the tax-and-budget fight remain unclear. Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Cagle, and Commissioner Garcia are all up for reelection next week.

While he had no comment during the meeting itself, Rodney Ellis made his feelings clear in a press release.

"The consequences of adopting the No New Revenue Rate are truly dire," Ellis said. "It forces tens of millions in cuts to life-saving health care services; throws way $100 million for law enforcement; delays urgent flood control projects; denies investments to strengthen economic opportunity; and jeopardizes other vital services that families depend on to weather tough times and build a better life. The callous disregard for these impacts and celebratory attitude of my colleagues is truly abhorrent."

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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