Property tax reform bill reaches the Senate floor without “nuclear option”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks from the dais in the Senate chamber on April 9, 2019. Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

BY Shannon Najmabadi and Emma Platoff

After months of stalemate, a revised priority property tax reform measure cleared a steep hurdle Monday, earning the vote of a longtime Republican holdout to come to the Senate floor for a vote.

Though a vote on Senate Bill 2 had been expected last week, an apparent lack of support halted its progress in the upper chamber, where the backing of 19 senators is generally required to bring a bill up for debate. After Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened to take the “nuclear option” — blowing past decades of tradition to bring the measure to a vote with only a simple majority — state Sen. Kel Seliger, a vocal Republican holdout, relented, voting to allow the bill onto the floor for debate but insisting he would not ultimately support the bill’s passage.

The news came alongside a reworked bill, which, after a weekend of negotiations, came to the floor Monday with a handful of technical changes and one notable concession. Debate was expected to continue through Monday afternoon.

In a lengthy floor speech explaining his vote, Seliger criticized Patrick for even floating the “nuclear option.” Seliger suggested his vote to allow SB 2 to advance was at least partly motivated by a desire to keep the Senate from a procedural move that “discredits this body.”

“We have a way to do things that I think is important. It underscores that we must be willing to compromise,” Seliger said. But he added, “this bill’s going to pass. Right now, nobody can get in the way.”

A top imperative for state leaders, SB 2 initially sought to force cities, counties and other taxing units, like community colleges, to receive voter approval before raising 2.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. A substitute for the bill, unveiled on the Senate floor, raised the flashpoint 2.5% election trigger to 3.5% for all taxing units except school districts, which will remain at 2.5%.

Democrats and municipal leaders — and Seliger, a former mayor — have called the 2.5% figure punitively low, and said it would cripple local governments’ ability to provide public safety services. A one-percentage point increase is unlikely to appease them; the Senate and House deadlocked at higher thresholds of 4% and 6% in 2017.

Currently, taxing units can levy 8% more property tax revenue before voters can petition for an election to roll back the increase. SB 2 and a companion measure in the House make those elections automatic, and make a battery of widely-supported reforms designed to increase transparency and utility for taxpayers.

Voters in small taxing units, with sales and property tax levies under $15 million annually, will need to opt into some of the SB 2 provisions in an election.

The bill’s progress Monday came after more than two months of stalemate in the upper chamber, and after the Senate stalled again on Thursday, when the measure was expected to hit the floor for the first time. That evening, after hours of closed-door negotiations, Patrick informed several Democratic senators that if no deal had been reached by Monday, he would take the “nuclear option” — blowing past a tradition that requires three-fifths of senators to vote to bring a bill to the floor — to pass the measure.

That threat seems to have greased the skids for negotiations, which lasted through the weekend. As recently as Sunday night, Patrick signaled a willingness to take the “nuclear” step.

“If that is the only choice left to me to pass meaningful and lasting property tax reform and relief on Monday, I will use it,” he wrote in an email to supporters. “You elected me to lead, and I will do just that. Property tax reform and relief, not following procedures, is the top priority. Time is running out on the Legislative Session and we need to act now.”

This story will be updated.

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