Texans' Property Taxes Dominate ‘local Control' Debates in Senate Committee Hearings

AUSTIN — A Senate committee spent hours Saturday debating a bill aimed at decreasing property taxes, which local officials say would hurt their ability to provide essential services while providing only minimal relief to taxpayers. Senate Bill 1, authored by Houston Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would lower the rate at which cities or counties would have to hold an election to authorize property tax increases. The current rate increase that would set off an election — called a "rollback rate" — is 8 percent. The bill would lower it to 4 percent and call for an automatic election to approve the tax increase if the rollback rate was exceeded.Lawmakers who support the bill say it would provide relief for homeowners who are struggling to keep up with increasing property taxes. Gov. Greg Abbott said the issue is his top priority for the special legislative session. They also say it would increase transparency and make local lawmakers accountable to taxpayers.But critics say the bill would negatively affect cities and counties' ability to provide services like police, fire rescue and health care. The issue is contentious because some local officials say they wouldn't have to tax as much if the state spent more on vital services and infrastructure instead of leaving them to foot those bills. They've also said Bettencourt is using faulty data to push the bill. Some local officials lauded the bill, saying governments sometimes fund services that are not vital. Senate Bill 1, they argued, would force them to make smarter choices about how money is spent."Do we really need a sustainability office? Do we really need an innovation office? A resident artist?" former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. "I wish I had this rule when I was mayor. It would have made my job a lot easier."Bill Longley, a lawyer for the Texas Municipal League who spoke in opposition to the bill, said it would provide only "very nominal" tax relief because a large percentage of property tax bills go toward public education funding, which has steadily received less money from the state. To continue funding local schools, Longley said, jurisdictions would continue to levy taxes."Taxpayers will not see meaningful relief," Longley said. Other critics have said that the bill may end up costing taxpayers more money because the local jurisdictions would have to pay for the automatic elections, and some would bump up their taxes to the 4 percent increase limit every year to save money for difficult years. The issues did not seem to resonate with homeowners who testified in front of the panel about the dire need for relief. At one point, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, held up a stack of 434 letters he had received from constituents asking him for help with their growing property taxes.One of those people was Joe Estes, a resident of Lucas, who said he moved there in 2004 because of the good school district and rural lifestyle. But in recent years, his growing property taxes have made it difficult for him to keep up financially."I'm raising three children, and that's a big hit on my budget," Estes, who has been a firefighter for 29 years, told The Dallas Morning News. "I need some relief."Critics say property taxes could have been lowered if the Legislature had opted to spend more money on public education during the regular session. That is not on the table during the special session because the two-year budget has already been approved. The Select Committee on Government Reform is expected to approve Senate Bill 1 this weekend to have it heard on the Senate floor by the middle of the week. Other local control billsAlso Saturday, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee approved a bill by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, which would preempt city regulations on using a phone while driving. The Legislature passed a texting while driving ban during the regular session and is looking to do away with existing local regulations."We can't have a patchwork of rules and regulations," Huffines said. "What this bill is about is getting clear direction and clear, concise rules and regulations of operating a vehicle." Representatives from law enforcement and municipal groups criticized the proposal. "If Texans want their communities to have a higher level of safety on their roads, then they should be able to do that," said Scott Houston, general counsel for the Texas Municipal League, testifying against Huffines' proposal.The bill will be debated by the full Senate this week. Senators also debated a bill that would outlaw local tree regulations. Dozens of Texas cities, including Dallas, have ordinances aimed at protecting trees, ordinances that proponents of the bill say violate private property rights.  Continue reading...

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