The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – With about 30 days remaining in the legislative session, deadlines are looming and bills are accordingly moving quickly. The big revenue cap bill is one stop away from the House floor, as the dance between the chambers over this and school finance reform continues. A floor amendment mobilized justices of the peace, rural broadband bills are moving, a Senate committee is moving plenty of property tax bills and a good friend of ours was recognized by the Legislature for her hard work. Grand jury reform got a Senate hearing, a big eminent domain bill was argued over, sheriffs talked civil service and a good state parks funding bill is on the home stretch.
Property Tax Bill on the Move – On April 25, Chairman Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) introduced a committee substitute for SB 2, the Senate property tax reform bill, in House Ways and Means. The substituted language retains the 3.5 percent property tax cap adopted by the Senate, removes the costs of indigent defense from the revenue-growth calculations and adds a provision requiring HB 3 (the House's school finance bill) to pass in order for SB 2 to pass. The bill passed out of committee on a vote of 8-3 and it is anticipated that Chairman Burrows will take up SB 2 on the House floor as early as Tuesday, April 30, in lieu of HB 2.
School Finance and Property Taxes – The 289-page committee substitute for SB 4 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), the Senate School Finance bill, was considered in Senate Education on April 25. Taylor indicated that the proposal includes nearly "every student-outcomes-oriented transformational reform and almost all the finance reforms offered by the school finance commission." The bill would increase the basic allotment to $5,880, includes a $5,000 across-the-board teacher and librarian pay raise, provides funding to help districts move to full-day prekindergarten for educationally disadvantaged students, allows school districts to establish funding for merit pay for teachers, increases funding for low-income students, and provides support for districts to improve reading among educationally disadvantaged students and English language learners up to grade 3.
A critical component of the committee substitute for SB 4 relates to property taxes. The bill would lower school district taxes by 8 cents in the first year and a total of 15 cents each subsequent year, which may equate to savings of $200-$350/year for an average house valued at $250,000. School districts would be limited in how much they could raise taxes in the first couple of years. There is also a provision to increase the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000.
TAC will continue to monitor this bill as it is closely tied to the property tax bills, HB 2 and SB 2 that are making their way through the legislative session.
Immediate Action by County Officials Impacts Bill on House Floor – The House had its final vote on HB 994 by Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) on April 24 after a lengthy heated debate on third reading. HB 994, as passed by the House, allows property owners in Atascosa County to appeal an Appraisal Review Board (ARB) order to a justice court as an alternative to bringing an appeal to a district court. During second reading of the bill, however, Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Houston) offered an amendment that would expand this bill statewide and it passed the House with that amendment onto third reading.
Opening this bill up to all counties would have greatly overwhelmed the workload for justice courts and have a significant cost to counties. The amendment would increase the workload of justice courts on cases that traditionally would have been heard in district court without funding for the extra caseload for justice courts. Increasing their workload without increasing their resources is a significant unfunded mandate to counties.
After an intense floor fight, HB 994 was amended on third reading to delete the statewide application and return it to the original bill, which only applies to Atascosa County. Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) offered the amendment and did a great job explaining the burden it would have on justice courts throughout the state. Rep. Guillen stood firm against any other efforts to expand the measure and accepted Huberty's amendment. Had it not been for the immediate action of county officials, this third reading amendment would not never happened.
Ultimately, HB 994 passed in the original form only applying to Atascosa County. The bill will move onto the Senate where we will be monitoring it closely.
Expanding Broadband – On April 25, the House passed HB 2423 by Rep. Charles Anderson (R-Waco), a bill that creates a broadband office within the Public Utility Commission (PUC) and establishes a broadband service investment grant program. The grant program would fund broadband investment projects that stimulate the installation and maintenance of broadband in rural and other underserved areas of the state.
The PUC, by rule, would be required to implement and administer the program. Currently, the House has a contingency rider for $26 million in Article 11 of HB 1 (the state budget bill) to fund the office and provide for grants while the Senate has only allocated $500,000, which appears to fund only the broadband office. This will be an issue discussed in the budget conference committee.
Another bill, HB 2422 by Rep. Charles Anderson (R-Waco), amends the Transportation Code to require the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to encourage and coordinate efforts to plan, relocate, install or improve broadband service in certain highway rights-of-way. The bill would require TxDOT to develop a strategy to facilitate the timely and efficient deployment of broadband facilities on state-owned land and in state-owned buildings in areas where such a strategy is needed. It would require TxDOT, to the extent practicable, to assist political subdivisions in taking advantage of voluntary joint trenching opportunities. The bill passed the House on April 24 and now moves to the Senate.
Special Shout Out – This week, Michelle French, Tax Assessor-Collector for Denton County and the Tax Assessor-Collector Association of Texas' board president, was honored for her outstanding work and exemplary leadership. Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) honored Ms. French on the House floor while Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) honored her from the Senate gallery.
Property Tax Bills to Watch – SB 1309 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) was voted out of Senate Property Tax on April 25 and is headed to the Senate floor for debate. This bill, should it pass, would require all county tax assessor-collectors to collect property taxes for school districts in their county.
HB 2770 by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) was voted out of House Ways and Means. Martinez Fischer's legislation would allow for 10 installment payments without penalty or interest for those qualifying for the exemption.
SB 1007 by Sen. Bettencourt was voted out of the Senate and is on its way to the House. This bill requires a tax assessor-collector to enter into a contract at the request of a property owner to escrow money for ad valorem taxes with no minimum payment or payment schedule required. The companion to this bill has not been heard in the House Public Education committee.
HB 2124 by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd) was heard in House Ways and Means on April 24. The bill changes current law to only allow a two year look back, instead of five years, when a property has new improvements but those improvements have not been added to the appraisal roll. The bill is pending in committee at this time.
Grand Jury Reform – On April 24, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee considered SB 1492 by Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a bill that would implement several changes to how grand jury proceedings are conducted. Specifically, the legislation: entitles a witness who testifies before a grand jury, including an accused, to have an attorney present in the grand jury room for the purpose of providing consultation while the witness is being examined or offering testimony; requires the recording of certain grand jury proceedings; limits the ability of a grand jury to investigate and indict a person who was previously investigated for the same offense and was no billed; and requires the disclosure of any exculpatory information to the grand jury.
Sen. Whitmire, when discussing the bill, expressed the need to make current grand jury proceedings a fairer process, and avoid abuse and forum shopping. During the hearing, several district attorneys expressed concerns with the legislation regarding potential delays as a result of the changes. Prosecutors also highlighted potential costs relating to extending the right to counsel to these proceedings, which are primarily investigative in nature. Additionally, there was discussion over unintended consequences that may result from the legislation as drafted. The bill was left pending.
Eminent Domain Balancing Act – On April 25, the House Committee on Land and Resource Management heard many eminent domain bills affecting cities, counties, water districts, railroads, electric and gas utilities and pipelines. The hearing allowed individual property owners the opportunity to voice their concerns with the current Texas eminent domain process and entities affected by the different bills to voice their concerns how the various legislation filed might hamper the public and private entities engaged in building infrastructure projects that are for public use for all Texans.
All the bills heard in committee - HB 991 by Rep. DeWayne Burns (R-Cleburne), SB 421 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), HB 1157 by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), SB 552, SB 553, and SB 555 by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), HB 1253 by Rep. Ben Leman (R-Iola), HB 1919 by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Sheperd), HB 2831 by Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), and HB 3327 by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) were laid out early that morning for all day testimony. Chairman Craddick stated that no votes would be taken on the bills that day and all would be left pending in committee since substitutes for some of the bills are still a work in progress.
Sheriffs' Civil Service Exemptions – The House County Affairs Committee met on April 25 and took testimony on HB 4337 by Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), which would increase the number of positions that a sheriff in a county of more than 500,000 may designate as exempt under the civil-service system based on county population. In some sheriff's offices, a civil-service system is in place to provide certain standards and protection to deputy sheriffs, county jailers, telecommunicators and other employees, including in the areas of discipline and promotion.
Like other elected officials, a sheriff customarily has the authority to appoint a certain number of senior or high-ranking staff at will. These positions are usually exempt from a civil-service system. As the state's — and counties' — populations grow, counties must periodically update various statutes. In making such an update, HB 4337 would better tailor the number of a sheriff's exempt positions to the size of the sheriff's workforce. In turn, this will help a sheriff attract and appoint senior staff. The bill was voted favorably from committee.
State Parks Funding – On April 24, the House passed legislation aimed at ensuring that proceeds from the sporting goods tax are directed to funding state parks and not diverted to other purposes. Since 1993, only 47 percent of the roughly $2.8 billion in sporting goods tax revenue collected has been allocated to state parks.
SB 26 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) would automatically appropriate proceeds from sales and use taxes on sporting goods to the Parks and Wildlife Department and the Historical Commission. The bill would set the maximum allocations at 93.4 percent for the Parks and Wildlife Department and 6.6 percent for the Historical Commission to help provide sustained and predictable funding to meet state park construction, operations and customer demands.
The bill would take effect in September 2021 if the proposed constitutional amendment, SJR 24, is approved by voters in the November 2020 election. Both the bill and SJR have already passed the Senate.
86th Session Dates of Interest and Deadlines – With about 30 days remaining in the 86th Session it is important to review several critical dates that are quickly approaching. For instance, May 9 is the last day for the House to consider second reading House bills and House joint resolutions on the daily or supplemental calendar.
If a bill does not advance according to these deadlines, the bill can no longer be considered and dies. See this Calendar and these Dates of Interest, which outline these deadlines in further detail.
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.