Property tax measure approved by Texas Senate without ‘nuclear option’

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With a few tweaks, a “nuclear” threat, and a rare — but important — vote on the rules, a bill requiring an election if cities, counties and school districts grow their budgets over a certain point was approved by the Texas Senate. Senate Bill 2 by Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, will still need to pass the Texas House, where lawmakers have some different ideas on the proposal. 

Senate Bill 2 requires cities and counties to hold an election if they take in 3.5% more money from property taxes from the year before. For school districts, that number is 2.5%. It passed 18 to 13.

However, Sen. Bettencourt had to wrangle 19 votes to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate for debate, per the Senate’s longtime rules. For months, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said he would not support movement on the bill — until Monday. Sen. Seliger changed his mind, voting to allow the bill to come up for debate while still voting against the bill. A bill needs 16 votes to pass once on the floor.

 It took a threat by the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, for him to change his mind. Patrick’s “nuclear option” would have scrapped the 19-vote rule and moved the Texas Senate to a simple majority, bucking decades of Senate tradition. 

“I respect our Senate rules, but I do not intend to let a procedural motion stop the Senate from passing this important bill,” Lt. Governor Dan Patrick wrote to KXAN as he was considering the nuclear option. “The public doesn’t care about our procedural rules. They want tax relief and they deserve it. Time is running out on our session.”

Sen. Seliger decided he was for the Senate rules and traditions more than he was against SB 2. 

“I voted to suspend the rules today in an effort to preserve decades of collegiality and cooperation in the Texas Senate,” Sen. Seliger said.

City and county governments have consistently opposed SB 2 throughout the legislative session, fearing a cap on the money they take in will cut off funds from public safety and other important aspects of city government. 

Democrats in the Texas Senate tried to amend the policy to exempt school districts, hospital districts, and community college districts. All were voted down by the Republican majority. 

This sets up high-stakes negotiations with the House, the Senate and the Governor. All three state leaders — Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott — have prioritized a major overhaul of property taxes and school finance, with all the parts working together. 

Earlier this month the Texas House passed a major school finance reform package over to the Senate,  House Bill 3. This makes an inter-chamber negotiation easier for chamber leaders: the House will have a say over the Senate’s property tax priority, the Senate will have a say over the House’s school finance priority.  

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