The Texas House gave preliminary approval to a priority property tax reform package Tuesday, teeing it up for negotiations with the Senate and impelling the upper chamber to act on an omnibus school finance measure.
Together, the education and tax overhaul bills have been the top policy issues of the 2019 legislative session, and they are ultimately expected to be ironed out behind the scenes — and perhaps simultaneously.
Tuesday's vote marks a small milestone for House leadership, which has muscled its must-pass budget, public education and tax reform bills to passage, all before the last month of session begins. But the House and Senate will next need to reconcile notable differences among the three measures, and the upper chamber has yet to move the school finance bill out of committee.
“We have done our job in the House — and we have sent everything over to the Senate,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, author of the school finance bill.
Senate Bill 2 was approved on a 107-40 margin after a half-dozen hours of debate. More than 20 Democratic lawmakers broke party ranks to support the measure, which has garnered adamant opposition from city and county officials since its introduction.
A top imperative for state leaders, SB 2 offers wholesale reforms to the property tax system and limits the ability of cities, counties and other taxing units to raise property tax revenue. As passed, it forces cities, counties and emergency service districts to hold an election to approve raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. Hospitals and community colleges have an 8% election trigger in the version passed by the House.
"Texas taxpayers are frustrated by rising property taxes. They’re often confused by the process, and many are scared of losing their homes," said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, the bill's author and chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. While the bill makes the tax process more transparent, "it does not lower anyone’s property taxes."
"It was never designed to do that, and I’ve never promised anyone that it did," said Burrows, a Lubbock Republican.
Few attempts to make major changes to the bill were successful Tuesday.
One amendment, from state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, seems to bar anyone but licensed attorneys from representing taxpayers in the property tax appeal process on a contingency fee basis. The change would likely affect the author of SB 2, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican and a property tax consultant.
"It affects a lot of people. We’ll talk about it in conference," Geren said. He added, "I don’t believe in contingency fees, but if we have to have contingency fees to do this, then I want the lawyers to do that.”