Ed Sterling’s Capital Highlights

Conference committee to work out differences in state budget

AUSTIN — After Easter weekend, conferees for the Texas House and Senate must work out differences in the two chambers’ versions of a fiscal 2020-2021 state budget to send to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Concurrence is required on how to spend an estimated $250 billion in revenue available to fund the state’s fiscal years 2020-2021. Once an agreement has been reached, the budget bill will be subject to an up or down vote in each chamber before it is forwarded to the governor’s office for final approval.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen on April 15 named five House members to a conference committee tasked with negotiating an agreement. He chose House Appropriations Committee Chair John Zerwas, R-Richmond; and Reps. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood; Sarah Davis, R-West University Place; Oscar Longoria, D-Mission; and Armando Walle, D-Houston.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, on April 17 named five conferees — all Republicans: Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, and Sens. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, Joan Huffman of Houston, Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville.

Nelson, in a report posted by the Senate News Service, looked forward to the work, saying: “Both chambers prioritized property tax relief and public education and I am confident we can finalize a budget that helps homeowners who are struggling with rising property taxes and make sure our schools have the resources needed to give teachers a raise and prepare our students for success.”

While the House and Senate versions of the budget both set aside an additional $9 billion for property tax relief, teacher pay and education, the House version appropriates $251 billion in all funds, including $116.5 billion in general revenue and $2.3 billion from the Economic Stabilization (“Rainy Day”) Fund. In contrast, the Senate version appropriates $247.7 billion in all funds, including $116.8 billion in general Revenue and no dollars from the Rainy Day Fund.

Property tax bill moves

The Senate’s property tax reform bill, SB 2, passed the Senate on April 15, was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means for consideration.

The vote on final passage in the Senate was 18-12, with Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, joining Democrats in voting against the measure. One Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, was listed as “present not voting.”

SB 2 would change what is now known as the effective tax rate, that rate at which the entity would earn the exact same amount of revenue as in the previous year, would be renamed to the “no-new-revenue” tax rate. It would also change the term “rollback rate” to “voter-approved rate.” Also, rollback elections would be triggered automatically when rate increases exceed the new limits and would be placed on the November ballot, the Texas Senate News Service reported.

Dubbed “The Property Tax Reform and Relief Act of 2019,” the bill’s main goals are to:

(1) Lower the rollback rate from 8 percent to 3.5 percent for most taxing jurisdictions and 2.5 percent for school districts;

(2) Require an automatic tax ratification election if the rollback rate is exceeded, eliminating the petition requirement in current statute;

(3) Make information about the tax rates proposed by local taxing units more accessible to property owners and more timely; and

(4) Make it easier for property owners to express their opinions about proposed tax rates to local elected officials before tax rates are adopted.

Gov. Abbott, in lauding the movement of SB 2, said he is looking forward to working with Lt. Gov. Patrick, Senate Property Tax Committee Chair Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, Speaker Bonnen and House Ways and Means Chair Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, and the entire Legislature “to provide lasting property tax relief for all Texans.”

Disaster declaration issued Gov. Greg Abbott on April 17 issued a State Disaster Declaration for nine Texas counties impacted by recent severe weather, including thunderstorms and tornadoes that caused widespread property damage and the loss of life.

In the declaration, Abbott authorized the use of all available resources of state government and of political subdivisions to aid in response efforts.

“As a result of severe weather over the weekend, Texas is taking action to ensure those impacted have the resources they need to recover as quickly as possible,” said Abbott said.

Counties included in the disaster declaration are: Cherokee, Freestone, Houston, Leon, Madison, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Shelby and Robertson.

Early voting to be conducted Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, the state’s chief elections officer, on April 19 encouraged eligible voters to take advantage of the early voting period ahead of the May 4 election.

Early voting begins on Monday, April 22, and ends on Tuesday, April 30. Voters across the state will be casting ballots in local political subdivision elections, including those for mayor, city council, school board, municipal utility districts and other local entities.

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