Published 8:00 am Monday, April 1, 2019

(Austin)  The Senate Property Tax Committee considered measures Tuesday that would increase the homestead exemption for local school property taxpayers by $10,000.  SB 5 and SJR 71 by Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt would ask voters in November to approve an increase to the amount of property value that a homeowner can exempt from $25,000 to $35,000.  He said this will cut the average property tax bill in Texas by about $125 per year. The state would cover the loss in revenue to school districts by using proceeds from oil and gas production taxes that would otherwise have gone into the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF).  Bettencourt believes the rainy day fund has enough in it to justify the diversion. “I personally view the ESF as full because we’re looking at values up to $15.66 billion at the end of the biennium without any withdrawals,” he said. The Legislative Budget Board estimates the measure will cost the ESF $1.6 billion in tax revenue through the 2023 biennium.

Bettencourt said that this is just one of several bills intended to deliver meaningful property tax relief to homeowners.  The increased exemption would save homeowners what Bettencourt estimated to be about $4,000 in taxes over the standard 30-year mortgage period. Because rising property taxes and values eat into any tax cuts, however, reforms that limit that growth must be a critical piece of this strategy, he said. “The appraisal increases I’m hearing about are just astonishing, high single digits on homes in Harris County, all commercial property on average above 15 percent, every apartment over 25 percent…and that’s just one county,” said Bettencourt.  He said he’s heard similar stories from all of the state’s major urban counties. Among several other property tax measures, Bettencourt is the author of SB 2, which would limit the amount a taxing entity can hike property tax rates each year to 2.5 percent. Anything more than that would require voter approval.

On the floor Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a measure that would strengthen sexual harassment and assault reporting requirements for all universities in Texas.  Twenty percent of female college students report experiencing some kind of assault at least once in their post-secondary education careers, said Houston Senator Joan Huffman.   Her bill, SB 212, would require that any employee of a public or private university who sees or learns of an incident of sexual harassment, assault, rape, dating violence or stalking reports it to the institution’s Title IX coordinator.  The coordinator would be required to make regular reports to the university president regarding the number of complaints and the status of investigations. The president, in turn, would have to make a report to the university board of trustees every semester of the number, disposition and status of complaints and investigations, the findings thereof, and the disciplinary actions are taken.  This report would be public information but would not identify any person. Huffman said she hopes these stricter reporting requirements mean that all survivors of sexual violence will be able to find justice. “I am confident that this bill strengthens the reporting process to ensure that the days when an outcry went unheard, or worse, covered up at an institution of higher education…we want those days to be over in the state of Texas,” she said.

The bill includes penalties for individuals or institutions who don’t abide by these requirements.  Failure to report on the part of an employee will result in termination and knowingly failing to report could bring class B misdemeanor charges.  If it’s proved in court that the employee intentionally tried to cover up the incident, then the offense rises to a class A misdemeanor, which can be punished by up to a year in jail and as much as a $4,000 fine.   Universities that fail to comply with the requirements under the bill could be fined as much as $2 million by the Higher Education Coordinating Board. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and now heads to the House for consideration.  

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, March 27 at 11 a.m.