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Aransas County

The lost Harvey tax break

I have mixed feelings about this.

Rep. Sarah Davis

Owners of nearly 300,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas won’t see any break in their property taxes because of political wrangling this year in the state Legislature over completely unrelated issues – including, one Houston Republican says, the bathroom bill.

A property tax reform bill that would have required all local governments to reappraise damaged homes and businesses and lower the tax bills came within a single round of votes on four different occasions. If the mandatory reappraisal proposal had become law, it would have all but assured that the tens of thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed statewide because of Harvey would have received a reduction in property taxes this year.

But it never passed, and according to the state lawmaker who came up with the idea, it’s because of the bathroom bill. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, lays the blame on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who she contends was trying to blackball her bills.

“I have little doubt its slow death in the Senate is because of social issues like the bathroom bill,” said Davis, whose district flooded badly during the 2015 Memorial Day storms and the 2016 tax day storms.

Currently, reappraisals after natural disasters are optional for local governments and most are like Harris County and Aransas County in saying they won’t do it because they cannot afford it.

A home in Houston that was valued at $200,000 before the hurricane, but worth just $30,000 after, would have seen a $700 cut just in school taxes, according to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which strongly backed the Davis proposal.

“It was really one of my No. 1 priorities,” said Davis, whose original bill would have taken effect Sept. 1.

But that is likely why the bill never cleared the Senate, she said. Davis was a vocal opponent of the so-called bathroom bill that was a top priority in the Texas Senate.


Texas law already allows counties, cities and other local governments to reappraise properties after a storm, but few ever do because of the lost revenues that it could result in and because of how expensive and time consuming the reappraisal process could be during a time governments are trying to finalize their budgets. If governments do the reappraisals, the full cost is on the local governments.

“It’s not a very workable solution,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said about why he has not voluntarily called for the reappraisals in Harris. “It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for people and what they’ve lost.”

He said the problem is the reappraisals would cost $10 million in a county as big and urban as Harris County. Plus the county would lose revenue from tax collections at a time it most needs the money to address the natural disaster recovery.

He added that property owners still will get the benefit of the Jan. 1 appraisals for the next year’s taxes. That almost certainly will result in lower tax bills for homeowners with damaged properties next year.

Similarly, in Aransas County – where Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 and demolished 36 percent of all homes and businesses – there will be no reappraisal. Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. said there isn’t time or money to get it done and said it would only hurt tax revenues at a time when every source of funding the county relies on is in jeopardy.

“All of our income is in the toilet,” Mills said of a county that relies heavily on tourists to generate sales taxes and fill rental properties.

Let’s start with the obvious. Of course the bathroom bill was the reason why this bill never got a vote in the Senate. This is how Dan Patrick operates. You can admire his hard-nosed tactical consistency, or you can bemoan his willingness to sacrifice the greater good in service of his narrow partisan interests, but you can’t deny the premise.

I certainly get the impetus for Rep. Davis’ bill. Though all the activity on this came before Harvey, Davis represents neighborhoods that were hard hit by the floods of 2015 and 2016. Giving people whose houses have been greatly damaged or destroyed a break on their property taxes has a lot of obvious appeal. That said, I agree with Judges Emmett and Mills. The counties – and cities and school districts – that these houses are in will be facing large extra expenses as a result of the disaster in question, and they’ve built their budgets for the year based in part on the original values of those houses. When the houses are reappraised for the next year, everyone can plan their budgets based on the expected lower values. Is the benefit of an extra year’s lower tax bill for affected homeowners worth the cost?

There is, of course, a simple enough way to resolve this: Have the state cover the difference. We agree that homeowners whose houses have been devastated deserve a break. We agree (I hope) that the cost of that break should not be a burden on counties and school districts that are themselves recovering from the damage of the natural disaster. The amount in question would be a relative pittance for the state. Why not let the state budget make the affected local government entities whole? Because that’s not what we do. Dan Patrick and his buddies take from the locals, they don’t give back. They’d be more than willing to take the credit for the cut, but it’ll be a cold day in August before they’d be willing to bear the cost. I appreciate what Rep. Davis was trying to do with her bill, but without this I can’t quite support it.

House takes a different direction on trees

Better than the Senate version, for sure.

The Texas House added a potential wrinkle to Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda on Thursday, giving early approval to a bill that would allow property owners to plant new trees to offset municipal fees for tree removal on their land.

The initial 132-11 vote on House Bill 7, a compromise between builder groups and conservationists, is a replica of legislation from this spring’s regular legislative session that Abbott ultimately vetoed, saying the bill did not go far enough. His preference: barring cities altogether from regulating what residential homeowners do with trees on their property.


State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont and the author of HB 7, said the bill was the result of months of negotiations between developers, conservationists and city officials. He said his bill and laws that go further to undercut local tree ordinances could coexist.

“This isn’t a Republican or Democrat bill, this isn’t a liberal or conservative bill, this is where people choose to live,” Phelan said at a Tuesday committee hearing. “They know it’s there when they decide to live there.”

See here and here for some background. I can’t see the Senate accepting this bill in place of the one it passed, a House version of which is in the House Urban Affairs Committee, whose Chair, Rep. Carol Alvarado, says there’s no need for it now that HB7 has been passed. The remaining options are a conference committee, in which we get to see which chamber caves to the other, and letting the matter drop. Good luck with that, Dan Patrick.

By the way, if you want to get a feel for how ridiculous that Senate bill and the whole idea of a glorious fight against socialistic tree ordinances are, here’s a little story to illustrate:

On Wednesday, during floor debate over SB 14, [bill author Sen. Bob] Hall answered a Democratic senator’s half-serious question about why he hated trees by saying, “I love trees … I also love liberty.” Hall has lived in Texas less than a decade and is perhaps best remembered as the guy who claimed that “Satan” had a “stranglehold” on his GOP opponent, former Senator Bob Deuell. In Hall’s statement of intent on SB 14, he played constitutional scholar, claiming that “private property rights are foundational to all other rights of a free people” and that “ownership gives an individual the right to enjoy and develop the property as they see fit.” Therefore, placing any restrictions on when a property owner can prune or remove a tree “thwarts the right to the use of the property.”

This absolutist formulation, which in casual speech is reduced to “I luv liberty,” would seem to disallow virtually any restrictions on what property owners can do to their property. What exception is possibly allowed here?

Well, plenty, if you’re a Republican who has very special trees in her district that must be protected from personal liberty. It was a minor moment on the floor on Wednesday, but it was a telling one: Senator Lois Kolkhorst, she of bathroom bill fame, got assurance from Hall that his bill wouldn’t touch Section 240.909 of the Texas Local Government Code, a statute that “applies only to a county with a population of 50,000 or less that borders the Gulf of Mexico and in which is located at least one state park and one national wildlife refuge.” That’s Lege-speak for Aransas County, whose beautiful and iconic windswept oak trees you may have seen if you’ve ever vacationed in Rockport.

In 2009, Representative Geanie Morrison and Kolkhorst’s predecessor, Glenn Hegar, passed a bill allowing the Aransas County Commissioners Court to “prohibit or restrict the clear-cutting of live oak trees in the unincorporated area of the county.” It seems some unscrupulous people were clear-cutting the oak trees, upsetting the locals, diminishing property values and harming the tourist economy. Something had to be done: Personal liberties were chainsawing the shared values of the community.

Hall assured Kolkhorst that his bill wouldn’t touch Aransas County, an apparent exception to Liberty’s purchase on the other 253 counties in the state that he didn’t bother to explain. But when Senator Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, asked if an exception could be made for San Antonio’s ordinance, which he said helps keep the air clean, Hall balked.

And thus, the important Constitutional principle of “my trees are better than yours” is upheld. God bless Texas, y’all.