Fri May 1, 2015 1:56 pm By Erica Grieder

Kudos to senators Brandon Creighton and Paul Bettencourt, who managed to achieve something yesterday that I had concluded was a pretty well lost cause: they passed a property tax reform bill out of the Senate.

The bill, SB 1760, was authored by Creighton and would promote greater public awareness of how high Texas’s average property taxes are, and why, by requiring the comptroller to publish side-by-side rankings, mandating some explanation of proposed increases on ballots, and so on. Insofar as the measure calls for more transparency rather than more discipline, it eluded the opposition of local governments and snuck out of the Intergovernmental Relations committee last week. Once on the floor, it received an amendment by Bettencourt addressing what’s called the “effective tax rate”—it would require 60 percent of the members of any local government entity to approve property tax rates that would yield more total revenue than the jurisdiction raised via property taxes the year before.

Bettencourt’s amendment seems like an effort to approximate the effects of his own property tax reform bill, SB 182, which would have tightened current state rules about the “rollback rate,” a metric similar to the effective tax rate. As it stands, if a local government wants to set property tax rates at a level that would result in 8 percent total revenue growth, residents have the right to request a chance to vote on the tax rates themselves; Bettencourt’s bill would have cut the rate to 4 percent, and made the election mandatory. That bill, as I noted with exasperation earlier this week, is apparently dying of neglect in Senate Finance, having met with organized opposition from local governments, which would have been directly affected. We can’t say for sure what the effects would have been, but it’s a pretty safe bet that given the chance to vote against current property tax rates, many Texans would have done so. Yesterday’s amendment is different in two key respects. First, it caught everyone by surprise. Second, it isn’t as tough as Bettencourt’s original bill: it only requires local government officials to cast an unpleasant vote. And so, as Aman Batheja and Eva Hershaw note in their write-up of events, the bill, as amended elicited some grousing from the locals, but less than it might have and less than all the other property tax reform proposals of the session.

Overall, this is a step in the right direction; it’s the most meaningful property tax reform effort to emerge from either chamber thus far. Those of us who aren’t lobbying for local governments would prefer a more robust reform—Texas’s average property tax burdens are among the highest in the country, and the bill is more likely to illuminate that problem than to address it. But as Dan Patrick noted, in celebrating the passage of Creighton’s bill, that’s a worthwhile goal: “SB 1760 delivers true tax relief for Texas homeowners by placing a downward pressure on the oppressive growth of property taxes through transparency.” I agree with the lieutenant governor; one of the reasons I’m so appalled by the “property tax relief” included in the Senate’s budget is that it would only mitigate such pressure. By contrast Creighton’s bill, as amended by Bettencourt, is a real reform, and a step toward real relief.  

Fri May 1, 2015 10:43 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Questions about whether Representative Jonathan Stickland was involved in a scheme to falsely fill out witness registration cards for a bill at the Capitol have been referred to the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee.

 “There will be an investigation looking into the alleged violations of House rules regarding witness registration,” said committee Chairman John Kuemple, R-Seguin. “Our rulebook, it clearly states you have to fill it out yourself at the Capitol.”

The investigation at first will be conducted behind closed doors, Kuemple said.

Stickland and Pickett declined to discuss the incident.

Filing a false witness statement may not just be a violation of House rules. It potentially could be a violation of a state law prohibits tampering with a government document.

The investigation was prompted by transportation committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, throwing Stickland out of a committee meeting Thursday night after discovering that witnesses who had signed up in favor of a Stickland bill were not even in Austin. The bill was on the question of whether red light cameras should be banned.

Earlier in the day, Stickland had used a parliamentary procedure to knock one of Pickett’s bills off the House calendar.

The Austin American-Statesman first reported on Pickett throwing Stickland out of committee, with video.

Fri May 1, 2015 8:11 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Attention, Alex Jones! Attention, Governor Greg Abbott! The federal government has placed 90,000 Army troops just north of Killeen with tanks. If those tanks start to roll, they can be in the capital city of Texas within two hours.

But, wait! There are another 90,000 U.S. military personnel in San Antonio de Bexar. Somehow, I don’t think they’re about to hand over the keys to the armory as U.S. Major General David E. Twiggs did on February 8, 1861, when Ben McCulloch showed up with the Texas militia. (You know Ben McCulloch. He’s the guy with the camp named after him near The Salt Lick barbecue.)

Read More
Thu April 30, 2015 10:49 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett apparently threw Representative Jonathan Stickland out of his committee tonight over an allegation that Stickland had falsely signed up witnesses for a bill, according to Tim Eaton of the Austin American-Statesman.

Pickett, D-El Paso, ultimately had one of the House sergeants escort a fuming Stickland, R-Bedford, from the committee room in the Capitol.

Before leaving Stickland asked Pickett what he was trying to prove and also said he hoped Pickett would apologize for his actions.

Pickett said before removing his colleague that he held Stickland responsible for organizing a scheme in which people were listed as witnesses, yet were not in Austin. Pickett made a telephone call from his seat in the committee room and allowed people present in the hearing to listen to a supposed witness say he was not at the Capitol.

Stickland’s House Bill142 to ban red light cameras was left pending.

There’s more in Eaton’s story, so be sure to access it.

We’ll endeavor to find out more tomorrow. Depending on how it was done, if Stickland did indeed falsify witness sign-ins, that potentially could be the crime of tampering with a government document.

UPDATE: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy has shared a video of the incident

Thu April 30, 2015 5:11 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Texas ACA

Even with Texas turning its back on the health care exchanges and an expansion of Medicaid as proposed by the Affordable Care Act, about 1.7 million individual Texans have gained health insurance coverage under the controversial federal law.

A new study found the percent of uninsured Texans fell from almost 25 percent in September 2013 to 17 percent in March 2015, with almost the entire decline in uninsured occurring because individuals purchased health insurance subsidized by the federal government. But a pending U.S. Supreme Court case—King v. Burwell—could easily wipe out those gains in paying for healthcare in the state. 

The above map shows the areas of the state where the most people are who have bought insurance on their own. The map, produced by the advocacy group Community Catalyst is hosted by the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities. People with health insurance are more likely to have a regular physician for minor illnesses and preventative care. The ACA often is referred to as Obamacare.

The new study by the Rice University Baker Institute and the Episcopal Health Foundation found most of the gains in health insurance coverage occurred after the ACA Marketplace opened in September 2013.

Texas had led the nation in the percentage of the population lacking health insurance, and its percentage of people who gained insurance on the exchange was about on par with other states that refused to expand Medicaid eligibility. But for those states that did expand eligibility, the average percentage of their uninsured population dropped from about 16 percent to 7.5 percent.

People with incomes between 139-399 percent of the federal poverty level decreased the percentage of uninsured by 44.5 percent, but the lowest income Texans cut their numbers of uninsured by just less than 20 percent. “The ACA was intended to provide coverage opportunities to the lowest income Americans through Medicaid expansion and without such, these Texans are likely to remain uninsured,” the report said. (Note: 139 percent of the federal poverty level is about $33,465 a year for a family of four.) 

Texas leaders have refused to follow ACA guidelines for Medicaid expansion, claiming it would cost the state and additional $15.6 billion over 10 years. Here is the estimate that was put out in 2013 by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Medicaid expansion

Republicans have repeatedly tried to undermine or overturn Obamacare, but the Washington Examiner reported earlier this week that congressional Republicans are now worried about blow-back in the 2016 elections if millions of Americans lose health insurance when the King v. Burwell ruling comes down from the Supreme Court in the next several weeks. The plaintiffs in the case argue that the text of Obamacare only makes federal subsidies available to people in states that set up health care exchanges for the purchase of insurance. Only 16 states set up exchanges, and Texas is not one of them. An estimated 13.4 million Americans could lose their health insurance subsidy of the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Washington Examiner reported earlier this week that congressional Republicans are looking for a “fix” to keep the subsidies going if the Supreme Court knocks them down.