The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – With about five weeks remaining in the legislative session, it was a busy week in both chambers at the Capitol. The Senate passed SB 2; a House committee heard a bill that would increase the sales tax by a penny; a fist-full of asset forfeiture bills received a hearing; an expensive election bill passed out of the Senate; and county-wide polling was discussed in committee.
A bill to allow the county regulation of game rooms passed the House, and a bill limiting the ability of local governments to go after polluters is on the move. The Senate passed a good bill for our law enforcement dogs when they retire; clerks supported surety bonds; counties will possibly have to report more information to the Comptroller; and a measure to reduce the value of property damaged by a disaster left the Senate.
Senate Passes SB 2 – On April 15, the Senate passed SB 2 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), the Senate's property tax bill, which includes a 3.5 percent revenue cap for counties and cities. Additional information is available in our Property Tax Update article.
Sales Tax Proposal to Provide Property Tax Relief Gets Hearing – HB 4621 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) would increase the sales and use tax to provide school property tax relief and fund public education. The committee substitute for the bill, which was laid out in House Ways and Means on April 17, raises the sales and use tax from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent and directs 80 percent of the proceeds toward property tax relief and the remaining 20 percent toward school funding. The bill's implementation would be predicated upon voter approval of a constitutional amendment, HJR 3, in an election to be held in November 2019.
Over the next biennium, HJR 3 is expected to generate $92.4 million in additional funds for public schools, according to the Legislative Budget Board's fiscal note, allowing dependence on property taxes to decrease. The proposal has been met with skepticism by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. With only 83 Republican members to advance the HJR, bipartisan support to reach the required 100 votes will be necessary. Many Democrats have already commented that the increase in sales taxes is regressive and would only benefit a household with an annual income above $150,000.
Both HB 4621 and HJR 3 are likely to get voted on in the House, but their future in the Senate is uncertain.
Asset Forfeiture Bills Considered – On April 15, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard several asset forfeiture bills, including bills that would require convictions of related criminal offenses before certain property could be forfeited. HB 404 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) would repeal civil asset forfeiture and establish criminal asset forfeiture for offenders convicted of certain offenses; HB 479 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) would require a final conviction for an underlying offense for the purposes of asset forfeiture proceedings; and HB 1615 by Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) would shift the burden of proof and require the state to disprove an "innocent owner" defense in asset forfeiture proceedings.
Several prosecutors and law enforcement officials expressed concerns about the proposed legislation and discussed existing protections and due process considerations under current asset forfeiture procedures. Jackson County Sheriff A.J. "Andy" Louderback also testified against the civil asset forfeiture bills that would restrict the ability of law enforcement to seize contraband from drug cartels. The bills were left pending.
Election Bill Passes Senate – SB 9 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R- Mineola) was heard on the Senate floor on April 15. There were 15 amendments offered up on the bill and nine were adopted. The bill proposes stricter penalties on election crimes, requires additional procedures at the local level in securing the integrity of elections and requires all electronic voting equipment to provide a voter verifiable paper audit trail by Sept. 1, 2024. The bill passed the Senate and has been received in the House.
Countywide Polling Places – HB 177 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D- San Antonio) and its companion, HB 2142 by Rep. Thresa "Terry" Meza (D- Irving), were heard in House Elections on April 15. The bills remove the population bracket to allow all counties to participate in the countywide polling place program. Currently, only six counties with a population of 100,000 or more, and four counties with a population of less than 100,000, are authorized to participate. Both bills were left pending in committee.
County Game Room Regulation Bill Advances – HB 892 by Rep. John Kuempel (R-Seguin) would amend the Local Government Code to remove the bracket and allow all commissioners courts to regulate the operation of game rooms. The bill passed the House on April 16 and now moves to the Senate. The Senate companion bill, SB 2092 by Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), has been referred to the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee and is awaiting a hearing.
Limits on Local Environmental Suits – HB 3981 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) is one of several bills moving that seek to restrict a local government from going after polluters for violations under certain parts of the Water Code. This bill explicitly prohibits a political subdivision that has the power to own or operate wastewater treatment facilities (which can include certain counties) from entering into a contingency fee contract with a law firm to go after polluters.
The bill also gives the attorney general the authority to settle in full any claims asserted by the local government in such a civil suit without the consent or approval of the local government. This bill has been voted out of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee and now moves to the Calendars Committee.
Property Tax Bills of Interest – On April 17, Ways and Means Chairman Martinez Fischer discussed his bill, HB 2770, which would allow certain qualifying individuals to pay their property taxes in 10 installment payments without penalty if the first installment is paid prior to the delinquency date. The bill was left pending.
Sen. Bettencourt heard his bill, SB 1309, in Senate Property Tax on April 16. SB 1309 would require county tax assessor-collectors to collect property taxes for school districts located in their county. Currently, not every county tax assessor-collector collects property taxes. Passage of this bill would require them to do so, regardless of whether they collected other taxes in their county. The bill was left pending.
County K-9s – On April 16, the Senate passed SJR 32 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury). The proposed constitutional amendment is meant to address the issue of county law enforcement dogs used for law enforcement purposes that under current law are treated as salvage or surplus property by the county upon their retirement. Currently, the county can only auction, donate, or destroy surplus or salvage property.
The constitutional amendment would provide that on the retirement of a dog, owned and used for law enforcement purposes, a state agency or local governmental entity may transfer ownership of the dog to the dog's handler at no cost to the handler. The proposed amendment will be placed on the Nov. 5, 2019 general election ballot for voter approval once the amendment gets approval from the House.
Clerk Surety Bonds – SB 1763 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D- Laredo) was heard in Senate Intergovernmental Relations this week. Velva Price, Travis County District Clerk and representative for the County and District Clerks' Association of Texas, was a resource witness in favor of the bill. The bill provides clarification for executing bonds that cover deputy clerks and other employees in county and district clerks' offices. The bill was voted favorably from committee.
Political Subdivision Public Information Database Bill Advances – SB 1253 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) would require all political subdivisions to report certain financial information to the Comptroller. It would require the Comptroller to expand an existing property tax transparency database, the Special Purpose District Public Information Database, to include all taxing entities that impose a property tax, a sales tax, an assessment, or a fee.
The bill would apply current penalties for noncompliance and includes provisions requiring submittal of relevant information to the Comptroller of Public Accounts for operation of the database by all affected political subdivisions. The bill passed the Senate on April 11 and has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Property Tax Disaster Exemption Bill Passes Senate – SB 1772 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) would create a temporary percentage disaster exemption for property damaged by a disaster declared by the Governor if the chief appraiser determines at least 15 percent damage was sustained. Contingent on adoption of a constitutional amendment, SJR 57, taxable property values could be reduced which will impact the Foundation School Fund and school financing formulas for the local school district. The bill and SJR both passed out of the Senate on April 16 on a vote of 31-0 and have been received by the House.
Helpful Tracking Links for Legislation
- County Bills by Office as tracked by the Texas Association of Counties.
- Senate and House committee postings are available on Texas Legislature Online.
- MyTLO section of Texas Legislature Online – use it to create customized alerts for specific committee meetings or to track specific bills.