Week in Review: A Digest of What Happened This Week at the Capitol

The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – This week featured a marathon hearing in Ways and Means on HB 2 as well as a bill that actually lowers property taxes. A Senate committee took up the appraisal process, increased transparency for property taxpayers, and more language on bond elections. In House Public Health, a veteran chairwoman vowed to make behavioral health legislation a priority.

March 01, 2019

Legislative News

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The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – This week featured a marathon hearing in Ways and Means on HB 2 as well as a bill that actually lowers property taxes. A Senate committee took up the appraisal process, increased transparency for property taxpayers, and more language on bond elections. In House Public Health, a veteran chairwoman vowed to make behavioral health legislation a priority.

House County Affairs heard directly from county officials on how to improve disaster response, recovery, and management, while Senate State Affairs took up disaster-related bills relating to court proceedings and criminal penalties. Senate Intergovernmental Relations held an organizational meeting with an update on Hurricane Harvey and lessons learned. With the bill filing deadline just a week away, there were about 1,000 new bills filed – with more to come.

Which is it, Property Tax Reform or Relief? – The House Committee on Ways and Means, chaired by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), met this week to lay out two bills focusing on property taxes in distinctly different ways. HB 705 by Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) and HB 2 by Rep. Burrows brought out county officials from all over the state to discuss what property tax relief could look like. In their testimony in support of HB 705, county officials spoke cautiously about the benefits of substituting a sales and use tax for a property tax. As sales tax is less stable, some official recommended it could be used to buy down a portion of property tax leaving the county with more diversified revenue streams, exactly like current law.

During the 14-hour marathon hearing, county officials stayed to the bitter end to discuss HB 2.  Unlike the Senate version, this bill remains in its filed version, including the under $15 million threshold allowing those entities to stay at the 8 percent rollback rate (but requires an automatic election to go over) - leaving all others at the 2.5 percent rollback rate.  County officials and representatives testified against the bill citing the unworkable rollback rate, but pointed out support for transparency and appraisal reform.

Of note, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley testified and offered options that could provide real property tax relief for county property taxes. Those recommendations included constitutional unfunded mandate protection, protection against state exemptions on county tax value and restructuring fees and fines to keep more locally. When legislators and the public ask about the solutions county government officials are offering, the five steps to lowering county property taxes list is what we hand them. Judge Whitley is collecting signatures from county officials who agree with these recommendations. If you are interested in supporting these solutions, please send an email to Rhita Koches, TAC Core Legislative Group Coordinator.

Property Appraisal Reform – The Senate Committee on Property Tax met on Feb. 26 to discuss four bills that would make changes to various aspects of how property is appraised and provide taxpayers additional transparency when voting on local bond proposals. The video archive of the hearing can be found on the Senate’s website.

The committee considered SB 67 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), a refile of last session’s SB 669 that creates a property tax administration advisory board. It increases training requirements, adds term limits for Appraisal Review Board (ARB) members, and eliminates disincentives to protest appraisals. Chairman Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) noted there are components of this bill that have been incorporated into SB 2. Testimony by the Conference of Urban Counties offered suggestions for the bill, including: have the advisory committee report to the Legislative Budget Board if the committee’s actions will impact state appropriations; allow ARBs the opportunity to provide feedback and data to refute a property owner’s claims that may not have previously been disclosed 14 days in advance; and support for an ARB’s decision to increase the value.

The committee also considered SB 135 by Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), a bill that would require more stringent standards for land used as an ecological laboratory before it could receive ad valorem tax benefits. The bill will limit the growth of new ecological laboratory land that would qualify for special open-land appraisal. A number of county appraisers testified to the current impact of ecological laboratory land and a considerable amount of testimony was taken both in support of the bill as well as those against modifying the system.

Additionally, the committee considered SB 449 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), a bill attempting to provide clarity that testimony by a property owner’s expert witness and an appraisal review board expert witness should be given the same weight when in court.

Lastly, the committee considered SB 462 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), a bill that requires voters be presented with specific ballot language in any bond vote. The bill builds on the work the legislature has done over the past three sessions by various pieces of legislation, such as SB 637 from the 83rd Session and HB 1378 from the 84th Session. Opposition to the bill noted that existing statute provides voters with nearly all the same components as outlined in the bill.

All bills were left pending. Chairman Bettencourt indicated the committee’s work will steadily increase over the next few weeks and signaled there was an interest to address the use of certificates of obligation in the near future.

House Committee Hearing on Behavioral Health Priority Legislation – The House Committee on Public Health met on Feb. 27 to hear public testimony on HB 10 and HJR 5 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), who chairs the committee. The bill and proposed constitutional amendment, respectively, are meant to address behavioral and psychiatric issues and funding to research treatment and provide services in this state for behavioral health issues in children and adolescence.

Rep. Thompson discussed her collaboration with the University of Texas Health Science Center to form a research institute similar to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) with the stated goal of identifying and treating the unknown causes of escalating violence in youth and particularly focus on the unknown factors yet to be discovered in their brain development, much like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was discovered through scientific research.

Among those testifying, Dr. Denise Zimmerman of Spring ISD in Harris County, and trauma consultant for the National Institute of Trauma Loss in Children, testified about her experience in seeing  a dramatic rise in mental health issues in students, with suicide being the second cause of death in ages 10 through 24. Dr. Zimmerman stated that in Spring ISD, with only 19 days of school in January, the counselors dealt with 491 mental health crises. The way to deal with these issues is research to find out why and provide better access to mental health providers.

County Officials Educate the County Affairs Committee on Disaster Response, Recovery, and Management – On Feb. 28, the House Committee on County Affairs, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), met for an organizational meeting to discuss disaster response, recovery, and management. This was a continuation on the discussions throughout the interim which can be found in the Committee’s Interim Report to the 86th Legislature.

The first panel consisted of county officials Judge Branick from Jefferson County, Judge Pape from Bastrop County, and Aaron Thomas (Budget Assistant to County Judge Jimmy Sylvia) from Chambers County testifying on the county perspective of disaster preparedness and impact. Judge Pape expressed that “mitigation ahead of a disaster is the best money you can spend,” which became the theme of the hearing.

The second panel focused on Harris County and their disaster response, recovery, and next steps in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. There were many questions from the committee regarding the $2.5 billion flood bond and how those funds would be implemented. Additional discussion focused around flood mitigation and debris removal.

The last panel of the day gave the perspective of emergency service districts during a disaster. The panel discussed their experience with Hurricane Harvey and their collaboration with local government.

The next County Affairs hearing is to be determined but the Chairman has mentioned that an upcoming organizational hearing will focus on behavioral health resources and needs, as well as, specialty drug courts.

State Affairs Takes Up Bills Addressing Court Proceedings and Crimes During Disasters – On Feb. 28, the Senate Committee on State Affairs, chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), considered several bills, including SB 40 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo). The bill would provide courts with more flexibility regarding the locations and procedures for conducting court proceedings after a disaster and incorporates recommendations adopted by the Texas Judicial Council in light of Hurricane Harvey. Specifically, it would allow presiding judges across the state to designate alternative sites for courts to conduct proceedings after a disaster, including locations outside the district or county. It also extends the duration of certain supreme court orders modifying court procedures during a declared disaster from 30 to 90 days.

The committee also considered SB 201 by Sen. Huffman, a bill that would expand the current types of offenses that are eligible for enhanced penalties when committed in disaster areas to include arson, burglary of vehicles, and criminal trespass. Both bills were left pending.

Senate IGR Holds First Hearing – The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, chaired by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), held its organizational meeting this past week, hearing an update on lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey and proposals heard from local government officials. Additional information about the hearing is available in our IGR Hearing Update.

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.