State Sen. Kel Seliger said the special session that starts Tuesday is an assault on local control.
“There’s no other way you can look at it,” said the Republican from Amarillo, where he was mayor for eight years.
The 20-item special session agenda, assembled by Gov. Greg Abbott, is chock full of items peeling back the power of local governments to decide everything from property taxes to bathroom access and even tree-trimming.
One of the issues at the forefront of the session is rising property tax bills. Abbott supports placing a cap on how much local governments can increase taxes each year.
Hikes over a certain percentage — 5 percent was one common suggestion — trigger an automatic election, giving residents a chance to vote it down.
Seliger and other critics of the property tax reform say capping taxes will hamstring municipalities and counties and actually mean unnecessary hikes. Such a measure might simply encourage local governments to raise taxes as much as they can each year just to stave off a need for an election.
Seliger was the lone Republican senator — of 20 — to vote against the property tax bill, which passed the Senate in a party line vote but died in the House.
Small communities need to raise taxes by 5 percent or more just to pay for a firetruck or a mile of paved road, Seliger said on the Senate floor.
Whether Seliger steps out again — under the bright lights of a 30-day special session and with a declared opponent in the 2018 primary — remains to be seen.
“I’m one of the few people there who really support local control,” said Seliger, who took office in 2004. “But to just say no, and nothing but no, is not a strategy to work through a legislative issue.”
Property taxes are linked with another issue that has come to the forefront as the session nears: education. Schools depend heavily on local property taxes since Texas does not have a statewide income tax.
Hale County Judge Bill Coleman, in a recent Plainview Daily Herald op-ed, said it’s lawmakers’ neglect to properly fund schools, not “greedy cities and counties,” that is responsible for high property tax rates.
Public schools in Texas get their funding from three main sources: local property taxes and state and federal governments. In 2008, locals and the state split the bill, each paying about 45 percent.
The state’s share has since dipped to 38 percent and local taxpayers pay 52 percent. About half of each Amarillo resident’s property tax bill goes to a school district.
“Are the governor and lieutenant governor really concerned about your tax bill,” Coleman wrote, “or is this a political shell game?”
After the session, Texas Panhandle lawmakers were unanimous in their disappointment that school finance was not addressed during the regular session, especially after the Texas Supreme Court said the system was minimally constitutional and in need of a fix.
The House passed a first step at repairing system and pumping more state funds into the system, but a reform bill died amid a standoff with the Senate. No new reform seems to be coming during the special session. And recent announcements from state leaders have added to concerns about stripping away local control.
Abbott announced the special session by saying he wanted the Legislature to send him a bill raising the average salary for the state’s 350,000 teachers by $1,000.
Last week, Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, called for a “longevity bonus” for teachers that gives a $600-per-year bonus to teachers with six-plus years experience and $1,000 per year to teachers with 11 or more years of experience.
He said the plan would be supported with state lottery proceeds.
State Rep. John Smithee, an Amarillo Republican and longtime critic of the state lottery, said school districts are probably in a better position to make decisions about budgeting money.
“It’s an interesting situation because there’s probably not a politician in the state of Texas right now — Democrat and Republican — who didn’t run on a platform of local control for the schools,” Smithee said. “And it seems like when everyone gets to Austin, they come up with a mandate for school districts.”
Seliger was critical of Patrick’s plan, but for a different reason. In addition to bolstering pay for current teachers, Patrick wants to use the lottery to shore up the Teacher Retirement System and funding for small, rural schools. Tapping the lottery — the proceeds of which are already mostly divided among Texas school districts, per state law — will actually reduce money flowing to all schools, Seliger said.
The special session is a chance for lawmakers to resurrect a number of controversial measures that passed the Senate but weren’t supported by the more-moderate House.
One of those is a bill restricting transgender people from using the bathroom aligning with their gender identity.
Another is a bill that would let parents access state funds to help pay the cost of a private school education. Like property tax reform and bathrooms, the voucher program has been a signature effort for Senate conservatives but has been blocked by the House.
Seliger, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, voted against a sweeping version of the bill that passed the Senate during the regular session.
Local state representatives have been against vouchers. Also, Amarillo ISD has been among a chorus of school districts that opposes such a program, saying it would shrink the pot of public money available to public schools.
However, Seliger said he supports a pared-back voucher program that only subsidizes private school tuition for children with special needs.
Abbott tapped two panhandle lawmakers to lead the way on two abortion measures that also passed the Senate during the regular session just to be blocked by the House.
The bill hasn’t been filed yet, but Smithee is carrying legislation to ban elective abortion coverage through health insurance plans. The abortion bill Smithee supported during the regular session lets women buy a supplemental plan to get such coverage, and did not make exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
“To me, it’s just a matter of freedom,” Smithee said. “The government shouldn’t be able to tell employers what kind of coverage they have to buy for their employees.”
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, has filed House Bill 163, which prohibits taxpayer dollars from going to abortion providers.
“We have a responsibility to defend the lives of those that cannot speak for themselves,” Springer said in a statement. “Removing taxpayer dollars from abortion providers is a major step in ensuring that we can protect the sanctity of life and end abortion practices once and for all.”
Supporters say the measures protect Texans from being required to support abortions through their taxes or health insurance premiums.
Still, others point to Texas maternal mortality rates that doubled from 2010 to 2014 and worry about decreasing access to health care.
”Gov. Abbott’s priorities for the special session jeopardize Texans’ health and safety and disproportionately impact low- income Texans, people of color and their families, and young people,” said Heather Busby, executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.