EDITORIAL

Legislature rams through amendment making it easier to raise property taxes without adequate notice

Posted

This is a sad day in the history of governance in Texas.

Saturday night, in less than an hour's time,  both houses of the Texas Legislature overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the property tax reform bill that eliminates an important public notice requirements — meaning it will now be easier for governments to raise taxes without fairly notifying residents.

Ironically, the title of SB 2, the much-ballyhooed “property tax reform” bill that was supposed to make local governments more accountable, is the “Texas Taxpayer Transparency Act of 2019.” It is already being ballyhooed by everyone from the Lt. Governor on down, and is surely going to be signed into law by Gov. Abbott. 

Yet this amendment weakening transparency — which would have caused an uproar had it been debated in an open committee meeting as required by regular legislative rules — was shoved through both houses with less than 48 hours remaining in the session.

Rank-and-file members could only vote it up or down.

To add insult to injury, this assault on democracy and the public's right to know what their government is doing with taxes happened on Memorial Day weekend when many high schools were holding graduations — a time when few citizens were thinking about the legislature.

It was a textbook case of cynical legislative gamesmanship that clearly had the blessing of legislative leadership.  And it worked.

The governor is certain to sign it, since just two days ago he and legislative leaders declared tax reform a done deal. He is not about to veto the bill and force a special session.

Here’s how it went down: The Texas House suspended rules in order for Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, to go “outside the bounds” and introduce a last-minute floor amendment to SB 2.

Eight minutes later, the amendment passed 88-50.

This amendment allows taxing entities such as cities, counties and school districts to merely post a notice online when they are about to raise your taxes. Historically, government entities had to publish notices of possible tax rate increases in a local newspaper in order to reach more readers than will take the time to visit an obscure page on a government website frequently enough to find it. 

We're not sure how many average residents visit the website of their local school districts and city governments on a daily basis, but we do know that newspapers have been reliable sources of news on tax rates and potential tax increases for generations. 

While some may argue that the power of newspapers has diminished in recent years, it's hard to imagine anyone believing that the government will do a better job of publishing controversial notices of unpopular tax increases in time for residents to speak out — or vote — on those issues. 

The amendment also allows eliminates a requirement of notice by mail delivery, making it even more likely that many residents will be taken by surprise when their property taxes increase. That's some reform, Texas.

The House approved the amendment and sent SB 2 back to the Senate — which went outside the bounds on a motion by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills — and voted 21-9 to approve it.

SB 2 was co-sponsored by, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. 

The record on the House vote shows State Rep. John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, voted against the bill. 

Property tax reform has been one of the hottest topics in several recent legislative sessions. It's an important issue for our elected officials to tackle. However, passing tax reform that also severely limits the public's ability to know when their taxes could be raised is a bad deal for Texans. 

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