KXAN Austin

State of Texas: ‘I will not step back,’ Abbott and Patrick clash over property tax plans

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — After five months of discord and a now a special session, top Republican leaders remain at a tense impasse over how best to lower property taxes.

The Texas Legislature, which finished its regular session Monday, already set aside $17.6 billion from the state’s budget to give Texans property tax relief. However, ideological differences between the two chambers about how to deliver that stalled lawmakers Monday from adjourning. They inevitably gaveled out that evening sine die, or indefinitely, without a deal.

Less than three hours later, Governor Greg Abbott called lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session with demands for property tax relief and border security bills.

The next day, Senators quickly passed a property tax plan that included steps to expand the state’s homestead exemption, the amount of a home’s value that is exempt from property taxes. The Senate then recessed until Friday.

Hours later Tuesday, the House Speaker Dade Phelan said House lawmakers would not take up the Senate bill, saying it was not germane to the governor’s special session call.

Phelan’s move marked a climax in the impasse, sending a message to his Senate counterpart to take up the House’s proposal or go back to the drawing board for a second special session. By adjourning sine die, Phelan gave the Senate two options — pass the House’s versions of the bills or pass nothing, since House members cannot meet for the rest of the special session after adjourning.

Before the vote, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spoke at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, vowing not to support a plan like the one the House was preparing to pass.

“I will not step back from this. And I might be the last guy standing, but I’ll be the last guy standing. Homeowners in this state deserve real property tax cuts, and that’s a combination of compression and homestead exemptions,” Patrick told the audience.

Abbott sent out a statement in support of the House bill after the lower chamber adjourned.

“The Texas House is the only chamber that passed a property tax cut bill that is germane to the special session that I called to provide Texans with property tax relief,” Abbott said in a press release. “It is supported by the most respected tax think tank in the state, as well as more than 30 homeowner, consumer, and business groups across the state. I look forward to signing it when it reaches my desk.”

Patrick responded with a message directly criticizing Abbott.

“Governor Abbott has finally shown his cards. He chooses to give homeowners 50% less of a tax cut, nearly $700 a year, to give corporations more,” Patrick wrote. “This is not what homeowners expected when they voted for him,” he added.

Abbott spoke unwaveringly in support Friday of his preferred plan to lower property taxes in Texas, which means the impasse holds over reaching a deal with what the Senate and Patrick would like to do.

During a post-session chat at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Abbott said he still supports the approach passed Tuesday by the Texas House of Representatives, which would direct the state to spend $12.3 billion on “compression.” That simply means the state would buy down school district property tax rates and foot the bill for the taxpayer.

The governor said Friday this would help toward reaching the goal of driving down school property rates to zero. He noted the state is receiving increasing amounts of revenue from sales and franchise taxes due to population and business growth.

“Texans want to own their own property, not rent it from government,” he said. “We must provide that by eliminating property taxes in Texas.”

Abbott never mentioned Patrick by name Friday, but a public clash played out this week between the two top Republicans over their differing property tax proposals. At the very same venue Tuesday, Patrick gave a boisterous speech slamming House Speaker Dade Phelan and promising to “not back down” from the Senate’s plan for property tax relief.

However, Abbott floated the possibility of bringing back lawmakers for multiple special sessions until his preferred plan is adopted.

“I can’t tell you when property taxes will be resolved,” Abbott said, responding to an audience member’s question about whether the legislature will enact school choice measures this year.

Here’s a look at the two competing proposals and who could stand to win and lose.

The Texas House passed legislation Tuesday to spend $12.3 billion on “compression.” That simply means the state would buy down school district property tax rates and foot the bill for the taxpayer. Combined with the approved state budget, the House plan would dedicate $17.6 billion to lower local tax rates by another sixteen cents.

Currently, school tax rates for maintenance and operations are $0.91 per every $100 of a home’s valuation. House Bill 1 of the first special session would drop that to $0.64 next year.

The House swiftly passed this plan with the endorsement of Abbott and more than 30 business groups.

“This is a plan that we feel like is equitable. It doesn’t pick winners or losers. Our small business owners will get tax relief, homeowners will get tax relief, renters will get tax relief,” Texas State Director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses Annie Spilman said. “Some may say that, well, that could only be a couple thousand dollars. To a small business owner, that is a lot of savings that they will put directly back in their business.”

Business leaders expect the House plan would save an owner of a $300,000 home about $1,300 over two years.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed legislation to offer some tax compression in addition to raising the homestead exemption to $100,000. The homestead exemption refers to the amount of your home’s value you can deduct from the taxable value. For example, the current homestead exemption is $40,000, so an owner of a $300,000 home pays taxes on only $260,000.

The Senate argues this plan would prioritize homeowners over business property. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt anticipates it would save the average homeowner more than $2,500 over two years.

“This is the most powerful thing you can do as a tax writer, because if you exempt somebody from taxation, they never pay,” he told KXAN. “[Voters] know a homestead exemption saves them money every year for the rest of their lives. That’s why this is such an important piece of legislation. We’re recognizing the fact that homeowners need tax relief. And there’s a tremendous amount of tax relief in here for businesses. So it is a ‘Texas Two Step.’ It’s a win-win.”

Patrick is publicly feuding with Abbott over their competing plans.

“If the House thinks after abandoning the Capitol, and walking out on the special session, the Senate is going to pass their “take it or leave it” property tax bill without a homestead exemption, they are mistaken,” Patrick said.

The House adjourned without a plan to return after passing their version of property tax relief on Tuesday. They refused to refer the Senate bill to a committee, effectively killing it and leaving their idea as the only one on the table.

It is likely Abbott will need to call a second special session to reconvene the House, assuming the Senate does not pass the House plan.

Yet the governor’s office is projecting confidence the Senate will get on board with the House plan.

“When the legislature failed to reach an agreement on a property tax plan in the regular session, Gov. Abbott immediately called a special session to address this top priority,” Abbott Communications Director Renae Eze told KXAN. “Less than 24 hours later, the Texas House passed his plan. Once the Texas Senate votes to pass this legislation, the governor will sign the largest property tax cut in Texas history, delivering permanent property tax relief to all Texans.”

The Texas Senate reconvened briefly on Friday, but did not take up the bills passed by the House.

Iconic attorneys named to Paxton impeachment team

The House panel overseeing the looming Senate impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Thursday Dick DeGuerin and Rusty Hardin will be the attorneys who will act as prosecutors in the case.

Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who leads the House’s impeachment board of managers said he has “full confidence” in the two lawyers.

In a Thursday press conference, Murr introduced DeGuerin and Hardin as the prosecutors who will be tasked with presenting the case during the Senate trial on behalf of the House panel. Both DeGuerin and Hardin emphasized their desire to have a fair and transparent process focused on facts and not politics.

“This is not about punishing Mr. Paxton it’s about protecting the public,” DeGuerin said. “The people of the state of Texas are entitled to know whether their top cop is a crook.”

Both said they hope when the Senate adopts rules for the trial, it will operate similarly to a criminal trial — in the sense that both defense and prosecution can present evidence, witnesses, and cross-examine. Hardin also emphasized the need for it to be public, so Texans can be aware of all the facts and arguments in the impeachment of their attorney general.

“I was shocked at the details and facts of the allegations. This is not about a one time misuse of an office. It’s not about a two time misuse of the office. It’s about a pattern of misconduct,” he said.

DeGuerin is a famed criminal defense attorney with high-profile cases on his resume — including defending former Texas congressman Tom DeLay, Waco cult leader David Koresh and convicted murderer Robert Durst. An Austin native, DeGuerin earned his law degree at the University of Texas-Austin and worked as an associate under legendary criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman. He also is an adjunct professor at UT’s law school.

Hardin leads the Houston-based law firm Rusty Hardin & Associates and has won a slew of verdicts in favor of clients ranging from athletes like Deshaun Watson and Scottie Pippen, to former members of Congress.

The Texas Senate will ultimately act as the jury in the impeachment trial against Paxton, who will remain responded from his position until the outcome is known. On Monday the upper chamber voted to hold the trial no later than Aug. 28.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named seven senators to a special committee that will work to outline the rules for the trial to proceed. They’re scheduled to present those to the full Senate during a meeting on June 20.

The Texas House of Representatives approved 20 articles of impeachment against Paxton, the three-term Republican, on May 27 by a vote of 121-23. These articles came as a result of a committee’s two-month investigation that began after Paxton asked to use state funds to settle a $3.3 million whistleblower lawsuit filed by four former employees who accused him of wrongdoing.

Catch up on our coverage:

During the trial, senators will act as a jury and must take a vote of impartiality. The Senate needs two-thirds of votes in favor in order to remove a candidate from office. A convicted leader would be forced to leave office permanently.

Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, could soon be one of the jurors tasked with voting on whether or not to remove him from office. Neither the state constitution nor the government code mentions conflicts of interest as a cause for recusing oneself from an impeachment proceeding. Her office and other state leaders have not commented on the matter.

After the Texas House voted 121-23 to impeach him, Paxton is suspended without pay, according to a letter from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

The letter from the Texas Comptroller said in part, “Per the Texas Constitution Article 15, Section 5, ‘all officers against whom articles of impeachment may be preferred shall be suspended from the exercise of the duties of their office, during the pendency of such impeachment.”

Furthermore, no salary payment may occur to Paxton while in suspended status, according to the Texas Comptroller.

Following the impeachment on May 27, the Attorney General’s office released a statement saying, in part, “the Texas House chose to proceed with the illegal impeachment of Attorney General Paxton.”

Bills inspired by investigations move closer to becoming Texas law

Following the end of the Texas Legislature’s regular session, Gov. Abbott has already or is poised to sign seven bills into law that were prompted by KXAN investigations.

House Bill 30 centered on closing the “dead suspect loophole,” an exemption in place since 1997 intended the privacy of those wrongfully accused. In the years since, the loophole has emerged that has allowed law enforcement agencies across the state to deny families, lawyers and journalists from accessing records involving someone who died in police custody and, therefore, would never go to court.

This loophole has been the central focus of DENIED, a six-year KXAN investigation spanning four legislative sessions that has encouraged policymakers to close the legal gap. The initiative gained momentum this legislative session following the Robb Elementary mass shooting in Uvalde last May, where the gunman died.

KXAN Investigates’ DENIED series (KXAN Photo)

It now heads to Abbott’s desk and awaits signature. If signed, the policy will go into effect Sept. 1.

Lawmakers passed House Bill 718 as a means of getting rid of paper license plates in Texas, with the goal to help ensure metal plates will replace temporary dealer plates.

KXAN’s Risky Rides series has investigated the $200 million black market impacting the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles system. Through the illicit efforts, criminals have sold counterfeit tags, which turned vehicles into virtually untraceable “ghost cars” and impacted all 50 states. The Teas Department of Motor Vehicles has until Dec. 1, 2024 to create a rule to solidify the change.

KXAN Investigates’ Risky Rides series (KXAN Photo)

The legislation now awaits Abbott’s signature. If signed, it will go into effect July 1, 2025.

KXAN’s Still Practicing investigative series revealed physicians were able to come to Texas and continue their practice with clean records listed on their Texas Medical Board profiles, despite having their licenses revoked elsewhere.

KXAN Investigates’ Still Practicing series (KXAN Photo)

The investigation directly prompted House Bill 1998, a medical board reform initiative that aimed to make it a Class A misdemeanor to lie on medical license applications and prevent doctors who had their licenses revoked elsewhere from practicing in Texas. Additionally, it would require fingerprinting and monthly monitoring of all physicians with the National Practitioner Data Bank.

Lawmakers passed HB 1998, which now heads to Abbott’s desk for his signature. If signed into law, it would take effect Sept. 1.

Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 49, a legislative item designed to expand access to Texas’ crime victims compensation fund and increase payouts for specific claims. The legislation expands eligibility for household members of victims, enhances relocation compensation as well as lost wages for family members of deceased victims, among other changes.

KXAN’s Held Up investigation dove into problems reported with the program in the past years, with several program employees saying they were overworked and the program was understaffed. Records pulled from the Texas Attorney General’s Office found it takes approximately six months, on average, for victims to receive their first payment following a claim — a record high for the program.

KXAN Investigates’ Held Up series (KXAN Photo)

Now signed by Abbott, it will take effect on Sept. 1.

Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 490, which aims to make medical billing a more transparent process.

KXAN’s Medical Debt Lawsuits investigations discovered a Central Texas hospital sued hundreds of patients for unpaid medical bills. Several patients told KXAN they received vague bills without itemized invoices.

KXAN Investigates’ Medical Debt Lawsuits series (KXAN Photo)

SB 490 requires hospitals to provide written and understandable itemized invoices before referring patients to collections.

Now signed, the law is set to take effect Sept. 1.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1414, which is designed to temporarily link the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners with another state agency to help with data collection and management concerns. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation will help assist the vet board with policymaking and administrative oversight for the next four years.

Also included in the legislation is a provision that would allow the vet board to retain any rulemaking capabilities on issues related to “scope of practice” and medical concerns.

KXAN’s Vetting Your Pet’s Vet series did a deep dive into the state agency tasked with licensing and regulating animal doctors. Part of the investigation revealed dozens of disciplinary records were missing from the state agency’s look-up tool, ultimately resulting in top agency officials resigning.

KXAN Investigates’ Vetting Your Pet’s Vet series (KXAN Photo)

The legislation was sent to the governor’s desk where it awaits signature. If signed, it will take effect Sept. 1.

Lawmakers passed this session Senate Bill 1445, an extensive bill pertaining to reform efforts with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The bill is designed to give TCOLE more power to hold police accountable, approve new departments and license new officers, among other changes.

The bill followed recommendations made by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which described TCOLE as “toothless” in a review.

KXAN’s Bargaining the Badge investigation analyzed nearly 300 peace officer license surrenders over a four-year timespan, with nearly all of those involved officers accused of or charged with a crime. In nearly every case KXAN evaluated, officers used their license surrender as a bargaining tool to avoid jail or prison.

KXAN Investigates’ Bargaining the Badge series (KXAN Photo)

The legislation gives TCOLE the ability to set minimum standards for new departments, as well as creates a publicly searchable database of licensed peace officers within Texas. The agency is also tasked with checking personnel files of new applicants with previous work in other states to ensure their licenses weren’t revoked elsewhere.

If signed into law by Abbott, the legislation would take effect Sept. 1.

CROWN Act signed by Governor, targeting hairstyle discrimination

A bill intended to end the discrimination of hairstyles associated with race was signed into law Sunday by Gov. Abbott.

House Bill 567, better known as the CROWN Act, cleared its final hurdle on May 12 after it was passed by the Texas Senate 29-1. It was sent to Abbott’s desk on May 16 and he made it law with his signature on Sunday. It goes into effect on Sept. 1. It passed the Texas House 143-5 on April 12.

The CROWN Act is an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, and it prohibits school districts, colleges or universities, employers or labor unions to discriminate against any protected hairstyle as part of a dress code. In the bill, protected hairstyles are “braids, locks or twists.”

Rep. Rhetta Bowers, the author of the bill, said it will “improve the lives of countless Texans.”

“It will help to reduce disparities in school discipline. It protects our students, and it promotes belonging and engagement for our children that they can feel like and show up to school looking the way God made,” Bowers said at a news conference in April, after the CROWN Act passed the House.

CROWN Act bills have been passed in 21 states including Texas and are part of a national civil rights and anti-discrimination movement started in 2019.

A case in Mont Belvieu, Texas, brought CROWN Act laws to the forefront after DeAndre Arnold was suspended from Barbers Hill High School in 2020. The school district said the length of his dreadlocks was the issue and it violated the district’s dress code. Arnold, a Black student with Trinidadian heritage, said the hairstyle is part of his family’s heritage and culture and the men in their family grow their dreadlocks to below their waist.

In March, the U.S. House passed its version of the CROWN Act, aiming to create a federal law. The legislation still needs approval in the U.S. Senate.