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House approves budget, and other news

Always a major milestone.

In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.

Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.

The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.

“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”

The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.

The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.

“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”

[…]

So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.

Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”

Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.

See here for more on last session’s House budget debate. One should never miss an opportunity to illustrate Jonathan Stickland’s failures. The House also approved a supplementary budget for the previous biennium, to cover expenditures that were not previously appropriated, such as the traditional underestimating of Medicaid’s costs and all of the Harvey recovery funding.

Speaking of revenues:

House Republicans muscled a heavily altered version of their property tax reform bill through a committee early Thursday, notching a single Democratic vote and swiftly shooting down attempts to further modify the draft.

A top priority for state leaders, House Bill 2 would require cities, counties and other taxing units to receive voter approval before levying 2.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year. A vote was expected to come Wednesday morning on a new draft of the legislation, which contains changes likely to appease small and special taxing units but leave big municipal leaders staunchly opposed.

But the hearing on the new version was postponed until past midnight. The 16-hour delay gave an unusual cluster of critics time to trumpet their concerns with the measure — and then for top House leaders to respond in an informal late-night news conference.

“Sometimes when everyone’s a little bit upset with you, maybe you have a good balance — that’s probably a good sign,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, the author of the legislation and a Lubbock Republican. “We worked really hard; we talked to a lot of different constituencies” and a lot of members. “I think you’ll see in the committee substitute, the work product and a lot of collaboration.”

As amended, HB 2 now exempts community colleges, emergency service districts and hospital districts from abiding by the 2.5 percent election trigger. Another provision lets certain districts, including cities and counties, bank unused revenue growth, so long as they average below 2.5 percent over five years. And new “revenue enrichment” language could cushion some taxing units by letting them raise $250,000 in new property taxes a year, even if it exceeded the growth rate. The threshold, set at $250,000 for 2020, would be adjusted by the state comptroller annually, based on inflation.

[…]

Currently, voters can petition for an election if property tax revenue growth exceeds 8 percent, a rate set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s. State leaders have touted the lower chamber’s proposal and a Senate companion as an overdue correction and as a needed check on spiraling property tax bills. But critics say the reform efforts would not reduce tax bills, just slow the rate at which they grow — and, in the process, hamper local officials’ ability to provide public services for growing populations.

As you know, I oppose revenue caps, no matter how well intentioned. The reason the Lege ties itself into knots every two years in a vain attempt to limit property tax growth is that a taxing system that so heavily relies on property taxes fundamentally relies on a system that is divorced from people’s ability to afford their taxes. As I muse every two years, if only there were some system of taxation that was proportional to how much money people made in a given year, that would solve so many of these problems. Too bad no such system exists anywhere in the world.

Of course, another way to limit property tax growth for homeowners would be to ensure that everyone is paying their fair share of property taxes.

As state leaders promote their property tax reform package as needed relief for everyday Texans, some Democrats and county appraisers suggest a provision in the tax code has stacked the system in favor of corporations that can appeal their valuations with a combativeness most homeowners can’t muster.

At issue: a 1997 amendment, drafted by a prominent tax attorney, that critics say has allowed business and industry to lower their property tax burden at the expense of other taxpayers. The provision offers all Texans a way to fight their appraisals by arguing they were treated unfairly compared to other properties. But critics say large property owners have capitalized on it to drive down their costs, while residences and small businesses can’t afford to do the same.

“If you have a whole category of property that is nonresidential systematically paying less, well who do you think is paying more?” said Bexar County chief appraiser Michael Amezquita.

Amezquita is one of several officials who say their districts have been inundated by appeals and lawsuits from commercial owners trying to lower their appraisals, which determine what taxes are owed on a property. Supporters of the “equity” provision say it’s a critical tool for all property owners, and that commercial properties aren’t afforded the tax exemptions many home and agricultural land owners receive. Critics counter only well-funded property owners can afford to sue — and when they do, there’s often little an appraisal district can do to fight back.

“The deck is stacked against us,” said Amezquita, who has been sued by a J.W. Marriott resort seeking to have its taxable value reduced. A spokeswoman for the hotel declined comment.

I’ve written about this before. This issue of equity appeals was a cornerstone of Mike Collier’s campaign for Lt. Governor. We’d be having a much broader conversation about fairness and equity in taxation if he had won that race, but he didn’t and so we aren’t. Better luck next time, I guess.

Anyway. The Senate still has to approve its budget, and school finance reform remains a work in progress. There’s a decent amount of harmony now, but plenty of opportunities for tension, drama, and good old fashioned nastiness remain. Which is as it should be.

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