Notably absent from the Republican leadership's self-congratulatory comments regarding the recently completed special session on public school finance were any references to the fact that, due to leadership's inaction, over 1.3 million senior citizens and people with disabilities in Texas will receive little or no property tax relief. Given that the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker were all in positions to intervene on behalf of these vulnerable populations, living for the most part on fixed incomes, I question why the interests of these particular elderly and disabled Texans were left so far behind.
House Bill 1, the property tax reduction bill, as proposed, neglected to provide proportionate tax relief for seniors and people with disabilities currently receiving a freeze on tax increases as other homeowners would receive. Realizing that these seniors and disabled Texans had been left out of the bill, I offered an amendment and introduced a constitutional amendment to ensure that all Texas homeowners, including those whose taxes are frozen because they are over 65 or have a disability, would receive the same level or proportion of tax relief. The amendment was adopted by the House and retained in the bill by the Senate. But the constitutional amendment still needed to pass.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee told me that "a decision had been made" (by whom, I wondered) to not let my proposed constitutional amendment get out of committee. Instead, legislation sponsored by Leo Berman (RTyler) that would provide a temporary reduction in taxes for seniors and people with disabilities, but would also allow their taxes to float up in the future, was quickly passed out of the committee and scheduled for floor debate.
Rep. Berman asked me to sign on to his bills as a joint author. I told him that as long as language authorizing property taxes owed by senior and disabled Texans to float up remained in his proposals, I would not. Such language was antithetical to the firmly established principle of a tax freeze for these populations. Berman argued that the additional amount of taxes owed by seniors and people with disabilities would not amount to that much. I asked him why, then, were he and leadership so insistent upon including the float-up language? He said something about "fairness."
Once again, the full House accepted amendments to replace the Berman bills with my original language, providing proportionate tax relief and a permanent tax freeze for seniors and people with disabilities. But Berman's proposed constitutional amendment, as amended, still had to pass in the Senate. (Berman's stand-alone bill, as amended to reflect my original language, did not have to pass in the Senate because both the House and Senate had retained my language in House Bill 1.)
Despite repeated pleas from the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, Texas Senior Advocacy Coalition and AARP, as well as from a bi-partisan group of legislators, including Rep. Berman and me, the proposed constitutional amendment was never considered for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee, effectively killing the measures intended to provide proportionate tax relief and a permanent tax freeze for seniors and people with disabilities.
At any point during the waning days of the special session, the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker could have impressed upon the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee the importance of voting out the requisite constitutional amendment. But they chose to not do so. The votes were there, the necessity was apparent. In the end, 1,181,825 elderly and 146,945 disabled Texans were left out.
For those of you interested in understanding why the Republican leadership pushed so hard for Rep. Berman's float-up language and, when my proportionate tax relief and freeze language was substituted, proceeded to kill the proposed constitutional amendment, consider the following. Since House Bill 1 requires any increase in school tax rates above four cents to go before the voters, the Berman float-up language would have ensured that there was a built-in constituency to vote against school districts raising their rates, and would have further limited the ability of school districts to exercise local control and raise needed revenues. Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist loved Berman's float-up language. So did our Republican leadership. That's why the proposed constitutional amendment was killed. That's why over 1.3 million seniors and people with disabilities in Texas will receive little or no property tax relief.
Naishtat, D-Austin, has been a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1991 and serves on the Human Services Committee.
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