WEEK IN REVIEW
PROPERTY TAX GROWTH REFORM BILLS ROLLED OUT
(AUSTIN) — After promising meaningful property tax reform throughout the first weeks of session, state leadership unveiled a plan to slow the growth of property taxes Thursday. "People desperately need property tax reform, our businesses need property tax reform, and we have set out, on this date, early in session…with a major piece of legislation," said Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. "We are setting the tone for the rest of the session on this issue." He was joined by Governor Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as two key lawmakers, Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt and Lubbock Representative Dustin Burrows, who will carry the bills in their respective chambers. Both bills, designated SB 2 and HB 2, are identical and would put a 2.5 percent cap on annual property tax growth absent voter approval.
The current property tax "rollback rate" is 8 percent per year. If a taxing entity other than a school district approves a rate increase beyond that, under current law, citizens can trigger a rollback election if they can collect the signatures of seven percent of the registered voters in that taxing jurisdiction. Rollback elections for local school property tax rate increases are triggered automatically if they exceed the rate, and SB 2 would make that the law for all taxing entities. The 2.5 percent rollback rate would also apply to all taxing entities, excluding those that collect less than $15 million annually. "The vexing problem facing taxpayers is that tax bills are going up at least two or three times faster than they can handle," said Bettencourt. "I think that the concept of having a two and a half percent rollback rate across the board means there's a universal solution." In addition to authoring SB 2, Bettencourt chairs the Senate Property Tax Committee, which will begin hearings on the bill next week.
Also this week, the Finance Committee continued work on crafting the Senate version of the state budget, hearing testimony from a number of different agencies. Monday, as the Department of Public Safety appeared before the panel for its usual budget presentation, frustration at the agency's handling of the issuance of drivers licenses came to the forefront, with multiple members demanding to know how the DPS was going to fix the problem. The Sunset Advisory Commission found during the interim that wait times at DPS license offices are getting longer despite more and more money being added to the agency's budget for that purpose. "This is one of the few places where everyone in Texas of drivers license age and above interacts with their state government," said Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor at Monday's hearing. "When it's this dysfunctional, it doesn't look good on the whole state."
DPS Director Steve McCraw said his agency is seeking $420 million in additional funds to hire 1900 more staff and open 15 more license offices to finally address this issue. "I'm convinced it would be a shining example of state services if we had those resources," he told lawmakers. As it stands now, the Sunset recommendations for DPS would move license services to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a relatively young agency only carved out of the Department of Transportation to handle car title and registration services in 2009. Texas is one of only eight states that doesn't issue licenses through a DMV, but that would change in 2021. Sunset Commission Chair Senator Brian Birdwell, who will carry the DPS Sunset bill this session, said that the Legislature can decide whether that's soon enough. "This is not a 'study whether we should transfer this or not'," he said. "It's going to move. If this committee wants to move it faster, we can do that."
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 5 at 10 a.m.