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Capitol Update (3-29-19)

Mar 29th, 2019

 

 

Greetings from your Texas Capitol! Since our last Capitol Update, we have officially passed the constitutional 60-day threshold before which bills cannot be voted out of the Texas House or Senate. Since that time (March 8th) my colleagues and I have been busily reviewing and debating a wide array of legislation in both chambers of the legislature, and things will only continue to ramp up. I have a good bit of information I want to share with you in this edition of the Update, so here we go.

 

Senate Passes Texas Ethics Commission Reform (SB 548)

 

This week, the Senate unanimously passed one of my priority pieces of legislation, SB 548, which will implement several necessary reforms at the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC). SB 548 provides a due process standard to protect those against whom a complaint is filed at the TEC. The Legislature determines the powers and duties of the TEC, and the intent of SB 548 is to provide the TEC with clear direction on how to carry out these duties. This agency has been ignoring statutory deadlines and allowing frivolous complaints to linger for years at a time. It is time to pass this common sense legislation that will require the TEC to do its job. I was proud to have 16 joint and co-authors on the legislation and am happy to have Representative Phil King (R – Weatherford) as my House sponsor to get this bill to the Governor’s desk.

 

Addressing Local Property Tax Reform

 

As any property owner in Texas knows, property taxes can place a serious financial strain on homeowners and business owners alike. This message was conveyed loudly and clearly this interim by Texans who are seeking relief from an ever-growing property tax burden.

 

This legislative session, Senator Bettencourt (R – Houston) authored Senate Bill 2, which was passed out of the Committee on Property Tax on February 14th. Under current law, the voters in any kind of taxing district have to petition their local government in order to trigger a tax-ratification election, if and when a taxing entity chooses to raise their tax rate more than 8% over the effective rate of that taxing year. As filed, SB 2 would require an automatic tax-ratification election for any property tax-rate growth over 2.5%, putting the decision to raise taxes in the hands of the voters and removing the current onerous policy requiring citizens to quickly collect signatures and petition their local government for attention. The bill also makes important reforms to the appraisal and appraisal review process, intended to bring more fairness to the process for everyday Texans.

 

I believe that SB 2 starts the conversation for meaningful property tax reform and relief for all Texas taxpayers. This bill, as proposed, will limit the unsustainable growth of property taxes on homeowners and increase the individual citizen’s ability to control that growth in the future. However, I am also continuing to listen to my local elected officials about the unique circumstances that face the numerous small cities and counties in Senate District 22, as well as the challenges that would face cities or counties faced with large disasters, such as the West fertilizer explosion in 2013 and the flexibility they would need to adequately deal with such situations.

 

While SB 2 will not cure all woes that property tax-payers face, I believe the bill includes tangible, needed reforms, and most importantly, the bill puts more power in the hands of the citizens. Likewise, this bill, as well as it’s companion House Bill 2, are both continually being discussed, and while I don’t know what the final product that will go to the Governor’s desk will look like, I am committed to supporting a bill that will provide meaningful property tax reforms for the citizens of Senate District 22 and the State.

 

Texas Department of Public Safety Sunset Bill heard in Committee (SB 616)

Last week, I laid out Senate Bill 616, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) Sunset Bill. The recommendations, developed during the sunset process, provide DPS the ability to work more efficiently and effectively in performing the duties given to them by the legislature. Among these reforms, the bill will require DPS to contract with an independent, third party to conduct a study that examines and makes recommendations on the management, operating structure, opportunities, and challenges of transferring the driver’s license program to another state agency. Doing this study will make sure we aren’t simply transferring a challenging program from one agency to another without making any substantive changes to help fix the current issues. Conducting an in-depth study by an unbiased third party will allow the legislature to methodically examine best practices for how the driver’s license division can function at its highest operational tempo and be better for all Texas citizens.

 

Senate Passes Key Water Protection Bill (SB 530)

SB 530, which I filed to protect the continuous and adequate service of clean drinking water, passed unanimously on the Senate floor this week.  This legislation increases the maximum penalty for water quality and boil water notice violations from $1,000 to $5,000 per violation, making sure that water suppliers are held accountable if they do not meet the standards of both cleanliness and reliability.  The current violation fee is not sufficient to incentivize water companies to fix the issue quickly. This bill will motivate operators to take corrective action fast. I want to especially thank the constituents from Ellis County who came to testify and submitted written testimony on this important bill last week and I look forward to having Gov. Abbott sign SB 530 into law.

 

Senate Passes Teacher Retirement System Reform (SB 12)

Yesterday, the Senate passed SB 12, which will bring long-term sustainability to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS). I am proud to Co-Author Senate Bill 12 by Senator Joan Huffman (R – Houston).  SB 12 is a responsible approach that secures Texas Teachers’ retirement benefits by providing a long-term and reliable funding model to TRS. Specifically, SB 12 increases contribution rates from all system contributors over a six-year period. By dispersing these increases across all contributors, rather than being borne solely by one contributor, we ensure a greater degree of funding certainty and future dependability. Further, this approach allows TRS to become actuarially sound immediately, rather than the currently projected funding period of 87 years. Finally, SB 12 also provides for a 13th check for retired teachers in 2020, providing relief for ever day expenses. It was with great pleasure to see SB 12 pass the Texas Senate unanimously this week. This piece of legislation secures TRS and Texas’ retired teachers’ future benefits; and I look forward to the Texas House passing this measure and it becoming law as soon as possible.

 

Other key Issues Passed out of Senate

 

In addition to the bills discussed above; there are a few other key pieces of legislation of which I am the primary author or a joint author that have passed the Senate. Those include:

 

  • SB 533 (Birdwell) – Currently Texas has over 129,000 inactive oil and gas wells that are at risk of becoming orphan wells. SB 533 provides severance tax relief for wells that have been returned to active status, as defined by statute, after two years or more of inactivity. This exemption can last only 5 years in total. Being able to reactivate inactive wells provides numerous benefits to the state through increased sales taxes, property taxes, and employment.
  • SB 698 (Birdwell) – SB 698 allows the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to use full-time employees who will be dedicated to processing air permit applications in an expedited manner in order to operate efficiently and keep Texas competitive with other states. The surcharges to expedite an application are paid entirely by applicants and will cover the costs of those full-time employees authorize under the bill.
  • SB 553 (Schwertner) – Current law requires the Attorney General to publish a document called the Landowner’s Bill of Rights. It helps the landowner make informed decisions and must be presented by the condemning entity to a landowner by the time an entity first represents that it possesses the power of eminent domain. While the document is useful, it does not contain information concerning the ability of a person or entity to enter the land to conduct a survey. SB 553, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, revises the Landowner’s Bill of Rights to include  information related to the condemning entity’s responsibility for any actual damages arising from an examination or survey of the property; a property owner’s right to negotiate the terms of the examination or survey of the property; and the condemning entity’s ability to sue to obtain a court order authorizing the examination or survey.

 

As always, I hope our Capitol Update is informative and that you’ll share it with your friends, family and colleagues in Senate District 22, who may subscribe to the Capitol Update by clicking here. You can follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or keep in touch with legislative happenings via www.capitol.state.tx.us or via my Senate website by clicking the screenshot below.

 

God bless,

Brian Birdwell

State Senator, District 22

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