Texas Legislature May Be Headed Soon to High-stakes Showdown on Property Taxes, Schools

This is a developing story.AUSTIN -- A showdown is coming over school finance and property tax overhauls, the Legislature's top priorities this year.In the next week and a half, the Senate likely will debate a proposed revamp of how Texas funds public schools, while the House is expected to take up a measure designed to curb spiraling property tax bills.The chambers' deliberations might even occur at the same time.If that happens, it won't necessarily be a sign of trust the bodies have in one another.Here's why:In tone and body language, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Property Tax Committee Chairman Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, have emphasized property tax constraints as their top priority. Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and his leadership team have signaled a school-finance fix is nearest and dearest to their hearts.Three times in just over two weeks, the House has postponed floor consideration of House Bill 2, the property tax legislation.Meanwhile, the Senate took its time to fashion a school-finance bill, not releasing a version considered to be a serious proposal until Wednesday.A Senate panel heard the massive schools bill Thursday, just as Lubbock GOP Rep. Dustin Burrows, the House's chief tax-policy writer, gave his most extensive remarks yet about what might be in the House's final version of its property-tax bill.In an interview, Burrows kept his cards close but pushed back against skeptics who have said the House is wobbly on granting homeowners and businesses tax relief."I am committed to passing property tax reform this session," he said.Linkage to schools bill?Asked about a Team Bonnen plan to make passage of the property tax bill contingent on Senate passage of a school finance overhaul, Burrows replied, "It has been suggested but I have not committed to that."Nor would Burrows directly respond to a question about whether the House, which in his committee had removed school districts from HB 2, is poised to restore them and follow the Senate in requiring rate rollback elections if the districts' property tax haul increases by more than 2.5 percent a year."You ask really good questions," he said.Burrows said for him, HB 2's most important provisions aren't the tighter rollback-election triggers but ones that increase taxpayers' awareness of what's happening with local property taxes and improve administration and state oversight of appraisal districts, appraisal review boards and property tax arbitration.Legislature not responsibleThe bill would stop the practice in which property owners learn of their new appraisal each spring and receive a notice of what the tax bill would be if based on last year's rates. Instead, come August, owners would receive clearer, easier to understand information about what a "no-new-revenue" tax rate would be."It will get people engaged to talk to their elected officials, the one who are actually raising their taxes," Burrows said.Each spring's notices of appraised value would be required to state that the Legislature is not responsible for setting local taxes and direct all inquiries relating to property taxes to local officials.Burrows said he's changing the bill's caption to "Texas Taxpayer Transparency Act." Currently, it's "relating to ad valorem taxation; authorizing fees."Bettencourt, the Senate's chief tax writer, did not immediately respond to a query about whether he agrees with Burrows that tighter election triggers aren't as important as the legislation's provisions providing greater public awareness.Nor did Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, reply to a reporter's text message asking if he would make Senate passage of the school-finance bill contingent on enactment of the property tax bill.Late Thursday, Burrows' Ways and Means Committee was expected to rewrite and approve the Senate-passed property tax bill, SB 2. It tightens the trigger for rollback elections if annual revenue growth exceeds 3.5 percent for cities and counties, and 2.5 percent for school districts.Also Thursday, Taylor said he doesn't expect his panel to pass its version of school finance until late next week at the earliest.The Senate is capable of moving a committee-approved bill to the floor and over to the House very quickly. The House likewise can move swiftly. It can take up Burrows' new version of the Senate-passed property tax bill as an item of postponed business any time after 10 a.m. Tuesday.The session ends May 27.  Continue reading...

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