Senate bill restricting property tax increases facing city backlash

A controversial bill is one step closer to becoming law in Texas after passing through the Senate Tuesday.

Senate Bill 2 is meant to keep property taxes from increasing too quickly at the city and county level. Texas lawmakers will have the final say over whether to place restrictions on how high city and county leaders can raise property taxes.

“It's important that Texans get property tax relief, because tax bills are rising 2 1/3 times faster than average Texans ability to pay, and that's year after year. So what's happening is as values escalate, tax bills are escalating and people find themselves further behind and they just can't make ends meet,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the bill’s author.

“Well, I think everybody's upset about rising property taxes, but this bill doesn't perform any real tax relief and it's going to make our city less safe,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler.  

Adler said SB 2 isn't what it appears on the surface and instead is just another way for lawmakers to restrict local government. “If the legislature was serious about doing something about property tax relief, they would fix the school finance system,” Adler said. 

Adler said about 75 percent of property taxes are coming from the school district in Austin, not the city. He worries that putting a cap on property tax increases at the city level, will negatively impact emergency services.

“In our city budget , 70 percent  of what we pay is for public safety, it's for police and fire and EMS, and 75 percent of that budget is for personnel. If this went into place and we lost $15 million, which is what we would be putting at risk on this bill, $15 million is a big piece of a budget that mostly goes to public safety,” said Adler. 

Bettencourt said Adler’s argument doesn't account for other sources of revenue.

“Because there's still growth. You get the growth of new construction and my bill is filed, plus an additional 5 percent, we're not talking about a cut, we're talking about slowing the rate of growth. So when I hear Mayor Adler or somebody else make those statements, it's just not true,” Bettencourt said. 

Currently, if a city or county wants to increase property taxes 8 percent or more they must gather signatures to call an election. SB 2 would require an automatic election when property taxes increase 5 percent or more.

“Because I want the folks to have a say in what's happening with their taxes,” said Bettencourt. 

Bettencourt said that part of the bill allows voters to have more control over property taxes, but Adler said voters already make decisions by electing city leaders every two or three years.

Tuesday, the Senate passed SB 2 18 to 12. Wednesday, the House held a public hearing on the bill. It still needs to pass a vote by representatives before going to the governor's desk.