Published 3:23 pm Monday, July 24, 2017

Three Senate Committees held hearings on Saturday, continuing to take testimony on bills added to the special session agenda by Governor Greg Abbott early in the week. A number of topics were considered, many related to the power and functions of local government.

The Select Committee on Government Reform, a new committee created by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick to handle issues relating to tax and spending reform, heard SB 1, the Senate’s main property tax reform measure for the special session. Authored by Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt, the bill would change the rollback rate and election procedures. Current law permits taxpayers to petition to rollback a tax increase if the hike is more than eight percent in a given year. To call an election to ratify or nullify the tax increase, advocates must collect signatures of 10 percent of taxpayers in the district, an overly onerous requirement according to Bettencourt. His bill would cut in half the current rollback rate from eight to four percent, and make rollback elections automatic if a tax increase exceeds that rate. It would also move rollback elections to the uniform election date in November, and create a single deadline in May for all tax protest filings.

The Senate Business and Commerce Committee considered a slate of bills dealing with local ordinances. The first, SB 12 by Lakeway Senator Dawn Buckingham, would lock-in local ordinances at the time of purchase of the property. Prohibitions or restrictions on development passed by local governments after the purchase date wouldn’t apply to a property.   Buckingham told members she is still working with stakeholders and local officials to find a balance between community needs to regulate land use, such as flood plain control and zoning ordinances, and private property rights.

Another bill, SB 14 by Senator Bob Hall of Edgewood, would override municipal ordinances that prohibit removal of a tree on private property. SB 13, by Fort Worth Senator Konni Burton, would create a uniform, streamlined permitting process that local entities would have to follow. The final local control bill considered by the committee, SB 15 by Senator Don Huffines of Dallas, would make the state the only entity that could regulate the use of handheld devices, like cell phones, while driving.  The Legislature passed a statewide texting ban during the regular session, but this bill would preempt local ordinances that require only hands-free use of a cell phone while driving.

The Finance Committee on Saturday took up two bills, one to change the state’s spending cap and another to give more money to teachers.  The first, SB 9 by North Richland Hills Senator Kelly Hancock, would change the spending cap from the current standard, based on growth in personal income, to an amount based on population growth plus the rate of inflation.

Next, the committee heard a bill that seeks to give financial relief to teachers before a more comprehensive school finance plan can be addressed next session. SB 19, by Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, would provide bonuses to teachers based on their years of service starting in September 2018. Teachers who have served between six and ten years would receive a bonus of $600, and teachers with eleven or more years of service would receive $1000. Second, the bill would put $212 million into healthcare for retired teachers in an effort to drive down premiums and out-of-pocket costs to beneficiaries. Finally, the bill creates a structure to guarantee teacher pay raises next session. It would direct funds to each district, $1000 for each teacher, in the 2020-2021 biennium, but gives district officials discretion in how to distribute those funds.

Senate committees are set for another round of hearings to address the remaining issues on the Governor’s expanded session call on Sunday.