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April 30, 2019

Property Tax Plan that Texas House Supports
Has Unintended Benefits for Some Democrats

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

A super majority of the Democrats in the Houston-area delegation might have rallied behind a tax reform plan that the Texas House endorsed on Tuesday because it would allow officials in the state's largest city to raise more money from taxes on property without voter approval than they can under the current cap.

But all of the nine House Republicans who have a piece of Houston in their districts also voted for the package that could culminate in higher taxes for some of their constituents if a 3.5 percent ceiling on property tax hikes that cities can impose without a green light from the electorate remains in a compromise plan that emerges from a conference committee in May.

A slightly modified version of the property tax measure known as Senate Bill 2 gained tentative approval in the west wing of the statehouse on a 107-40 vote without a single dissenting Republican.

While six out of every 10 Democrats in the lower chamber opposed the local tax-capping proposal in the initial vote on the package, almost all of the 26 minority party representatives who supported it are based in Houston or the surrounding suburbs or House districts on or near the border.

Ten of the 14 Democrats from Harris County - State Reps. Alma Allen, Gina Calanni, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton, Jessica Farrar, Ana Hernandez, Jarvis Johnson, Shawn Thierry, Senfronia Thompson and Gene Wu - backed SB 2 on second reading after sticking with the Democratic Caucus on most of the amendments that the GOP majority shot down on mostly party-line votes during a floor skirmish that spanned six hours. All of the Harris Democrats who voted for the measure are Houston residents with the exception of Calanni - a freshman lawmaker from the suburban community of Katy.

Eleven of 16 House Democrats who represent districts on the border from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso - State Reps. Cesar Blanco of El Paso, Terry Canales of Edinburg, Alex Dominguez of Brownsville, Art Fierro of El Paso, Bobby Guerra of Mission, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Oscar Longoria of Brownsville, Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville, Joe Moody of El Paso, Sergio Munoz of Mission and Richard Raymond of Laredo - also crossed the partisan line with votes for the property tax plan.

Democratic State Rep. Abel Hererro of Corpus Christi was shown as voting aye on SB 1 as well. The group of Democrats who supported the property tax measure that GOP State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock is sponsoring included State Reps. Joe Deshotel of Beaumont, Julie Johnson of Dallas, Leo Pacheco of San Antonio and Ramon Romero of Fort Worth.

First-term Republican Speaker Dennis Bonnen had made an eleventh-hour pitch for support on SB 2 from some of the Democrats who are chairing committees in the lower chamber on his debut leadership team.

But Coleman, Dutton and Thompson were the only Houston Democrats who are standing panel chairs in the group of lawmakers who support the measure in the preliminary vote. Canales, Guillen and Lucio also lead House committees while Longoria is the vice-chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee who's one of the lower chamber's negotiators on the conference committee that's attempting to hammer out a compromise on a two-year state budget before the regular session ends on May 28. Moody is the speaker pro tem and one of the House's most influential Democrats as the Calendars Committee vice-chair.

It isn't clear at this point if the speaker or his GOP allies had any part in making the Houston-area Democrats aware that the city council in the nation's fourth largest city would have more flexibility when it comes to raising new revenues with the rollback election rate that would supercede local ordinances if SB 2 becomes law in the form that will clear the House with a final vote on Wednesday.

Houston has had a limitation on property tax increases in place since voters adopted it in 2004. The amendment that was added to the city charter in Houston more than 14 years ago caps annual property tax revenue growth at the lesser of the combined rates of population growth and inflation or 4.5 percent.

With property values in Houston on a perennial upswing, city leaders have been forced to reduce the property tax rate on an annual basis for the past five years to keep the amount of revenues that they generate below the level that voters imposed.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner - a former state lawmaker who served in the House for almost 28 years - has pondered a push to raise the local tax cap in recent years amid concerns that it's put the public safety at risk with restrictions on funding for police and other local services.

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