A war of words has broken out between conservative state lawmakers and liberal local officials, with each side questioning the other’s motivations and character. These sometimes-caustic exchanges are not new to Texas politics, but the barbs are usually traded behind closed doors and inside committee rooms, not aired openly.
The harshness of the public squabbling may signal an escalation in the ongoing state-local conflict. If that’s the case, then the 2021 legislative session could be all that much more explosive especially with so many big, controversial issues on deck.
For instance, some prominent state officials have said that they want another shot at passing legislation to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying, a practice that lets local governments spend tax dollars to lobby for more tax dollars. If lawmakers try again, then expect virtually every local official (and their paid lobbyists) to oppose it, much like last session.
In fact, some spirited rhetoric is already being bandied about in at least one city hall. At a recent Houston City Council meeting, District K Councilwoman Martha Castex-Tatum shared her thoughts on the matter, saying: “We better be ready to protect our local control. And if we don’t? God help us.” Interestingly, the public doesn’t feel the same as Castex-Tatum about a possible ban.
Another fight that may get fiercer if all the back-and-forth persists involves property taxes.
Despite some hard fought victories last session to slow and shrink tax bills, many state officials recognize that there’s more work to do next session, especially in light of local officials behaving badly.
In response to Senate Bill 2 — the new law that limits property tax revenue growth to 3.5 percent annually unless voters say otherwise — many cities and counties are grabbing as much new revenue as they can under the old system before the new one takes effect in January 2020.
Still others want to raise fees to offset the impact of SB 2. Earlier this year, the city of Round Rock’s chief financial officer told council members: “With SB 2, with the cost pressures we’re facing, we’ll have to reevaluate our fees — our development fees, park fees.” Round Rock’s mayor added further still “that the city will examine admission and use fees at recreation centers, sports fields and a city water park…” Round Rock isn’t alone in its thinking, either. A number of cities are either considering or have already taken a similar approach, thanks in part to the Texas Municipal League, a center-left advocacy organization, that is advising its members on “Shaking the Money Tree.”
None of this has gone unnoticed. Shortly after the legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote: “Some local officials are already looking for ways to maneuver around SB 2…Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and I have jointly announced that we will eliminate any loopholes designed to circumvent the property tax reforms in SB 2 in the next legislative session.”
On just these two issues alone — property taxes and taxpayer-funded lobbying—the dialogue is getting heated and passions enflamed, and there’s no sign of it letting up. If nothing changes before the next legislative session, we should all expect major fireworks on some of Texas’ biggest issues.