From the Quorum Report:
By: Scott Braddock
HOUSTON – More than a decade ago, Paul Bettencourt and Dan Patrick were working here in the Bayou City on what some would later call a “revolution” within the Republican Party of Texas – an insurrection that would one day see both men holding gavels in the Texas Senate.
It was back in 2003 that they loaded up some Harris County taxpayers for a bus trip to Austin to complain to Texas House lawmakers about rising property tax bills and demand action be taken at the Capitol.
Patrick, at the time a radio talk show host criticized by many as a “carnival barker,” was as convincing as ever to those folks who were outraged about their property taxes. He promised, for example, that the bus-riders would be able to testify in Austin and be back home in Houston in time to pick up their kids from school.
It did not quite work out that way.
As frustrations mounted during a hearing, then-Local Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, ended up handing the gavel to freshman Rep. Glenn Hegar while Hill and Patrick stepped out into the hallway for a shouting match about tactics and taxes.
Looking back now, it seems that day was a critical inflection point in Texas politics.
“That’s when it all started,” said one veteran Republican lawmaker of Patrick and Bettencourt. “They were on the bus. Now, they’re driving the bus.”
Well, they’re at least driving the Senate bus.
Lt. Gov. Patrick, as the Senate’s new presiding officer, has tapped freshman Sen. Bettencourt to chair the Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief. Here’s the announcement of the committee.
In his West Houston district office on Monday – the same district office used by Patrick during his days as a senator in the mid-rise building along the Katy Freeway that houses the radio station owned by the Lite Guv – Bettencourt sounded quite eager to take on the task of shaping the upper chamber’s position on tax cuts in advance of the 2017 legislative session.
Pointing to the City of Austin’s now-dismissed lawsuit over valuations of commercial property, Bettencourt said “the appraisal process should not be the city suing taxpayers because their taxes are too low.” The city had argued that the court should correct what it said were persistent undervaluations of commercial property that end up putting an undue burden on homeowners. “(Mayor) Steve Adler should be ashamed of himself for that,” Bettencourt said.
The Select Committee will hold hearings around the state starting as soon as December but more likely in January, Bettencourt said. “We are going to get down in the weeds,” he said. “And we want to hear from everyone.”
Calling the recently-passed Proposition 1 “a good first step,” Bettencourt said the margin of victory for the ballot initiative “shows you there is a huge pent-up demand for property tax relief.”
As Bettencourt prepares to dig into “all aspects” of more potential property tax cuts, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dennis Bonnen says the state would get far more bang for the buck by focusing on business and sales taxes than it ever has from slashing property taxes.
In a speech to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, Bonnen said of property taxes that “it seems very clear to me the legislature is not the most appropriate place to solve this problem.”
“My attitude, in doing our discussions and research, is that the best place for the state legislature to address tax issues is on taxes we have absolute control over,” Bonnen said.
But in Bettencourt’s office on Monday, the new committee leader was all smiles as he disagreed with Bonnen’s assertion. “The Senate will have a focus on property taxes because we don’t get calls that say ‘my sales taxes are too high,’” Bettencourt said, adding that he and Bonnen have talked positively about tackling the issue of taxes on business inventory.
Focusing his aim on his favorite target – local government – Bettencourt excitedly read aloud from a letter he sent to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in which the senator said “There is an astonishing 40% increase in the taxable value of Harris County’s tax roll in just three years.” Taxpayers will have paid “approximately $700 million more in just three years as the combined tax rate of the four Harris County taxing jurisdictions remains unchanged by vote of Commissioners’ Court,” he said.
“The system is out of balance,” Bettencourt said as his bottom line. “The taxpayers are paying 4 to 5 times more per year than their personal income is going up.”
(Copyright November 9, 2015, Harvey Kronberg, www.QuorumReport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.)