CAPITAL HIGHLIGHTS: Legislature passes property tax, school finance reform

By Ed Sterling, Texas Press Association

AUSTIN — While the Memorial Day holiday was observed across Texas, lawmakers stayed busy at the state Capitol, voting on key bills in the final three days of the 86th Texas Legislature’s 140-day regular session.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen did what they jointly set out to do at the beginning of the session in January. They exercised their leadership skills well enough for the Senate and House to pass property tax reform (Senate Bill 2) and school finance reform (House Bill 3), and to pass a state budget for fiscal years 2020-2021 (House Bill 1).

The Legislature is constitutionally mandated to pass a state budget every two years. HB 1, the state budget written by House Appropriations Committee Chair John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, contains $250.6 billion in spending. The two-year budget is subject to certification by the state comptroller. The governor has until June 16 to sign or veto any bill or veto any line item within HB 1.

SB 2, titled the “Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act of 2019,” amends the property tax appraisal and rate-setting processes. Lt. Gov. Patrick called it the first property tax reform in 40 years. “It will provide an average of $200 in property tax relief this year on a $250,000 home,” Patrick said.

SB 2’s main author was Senate Property Tax Committee Chair Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, sponsored the bill in the House. Bettencourt called SB 2 and HB 3 “astonishing tax relief.” SB 2 limits most municipal tax rate increases to 3.5 percent on the $100 valuation. The current limit is 8.0 percent without a rollback election. However, it will continue to be incumbent upon county appraisal districts and local oversight to control property values.

HB 3, authored by House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, provides about $2 billion for pay raises for teachers and other public school employees and reduces local school property tax rates by an estimated 13 cents per $100 valuation by 2021. The reduction, according to the Senate News Service, will provide more than $5 billion in property tax relief within two years. Taylor said HB 3 would put $4.5 billion more into the classroom and direct more funds toward students with economic disadvantages, those still learning English and those with dyslexia. HB 3 also would create an optional July term for eligible students and full-day, pre-kindergarten programs for students from low-income backgrounds.

Senate elects pro tempore

Senate State Affairs Committee Chair Joan Huffman, R-Houston, on May 27 was sworn in as the body’s president pro tempore for the remainder of the 86th Legislature, which continues until January of 2021.

As president pro tem, Huffman serves as the state’s chief executive when both the governor and lieutenant governor are out of the state. She succeeds Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.

Whitley resigns from office

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, the state’s chief elections officer, announced his resignation from office on May 27.

Gov. Abbott last December appointed Whitley, but the appointment was subject to confirmation by the Senate. The Senate adjourned sine die on May 27 without voting to confirm him.

In January Whitley issued an advisory on voter registration list maintenance to election officials across Texas. The advisory potentially would have invalidated the voting rights of Texans who were naturalized as citizens and lawfully registered to vote. The Texas League of United Latin American Citizens and others sued Whitley to stop the voter purge. The parties settled in late April when the state agreed to revise its practices.

One bill out of five passes

How busy were our lawmakers from Jan. 8 to May 27?

The 150 members of the Texas House and 31 members of the Texas Senate combined filed 7,324 bills proposing, amending or repealing laws in the 140-day legislative session that ended last week. Of the total number of bills, 1,429 passed, resulting in a passage rate of 19.5 percent.

The 2019 Legislature’s output of bills seems high, and it was. The last time more bills were filed in a regular legislative session happened was 10 years ago, during the 81st Texas Legislature in 2009. Then, the House and Senate filed a combined total of 7,419 bills and passed 1,459 or 19.7 percent.

To learn how a bill becomes a law, visit: docs/legref/legislativeprocess.pdf