The Dallas Examiner
Residents and legislators gathered for the “Dallas and the 86th Legislature,” an in-depth discussion about the state’s latest legislative session that took place June 13 at the Communities Foundation of Texas Mabel Peters Caruth Center.
The event was part of a series of post-legislative session events that were presented by The Texas Tribune to help voters all over Texas break down the 86th Texas Legislature and what the session meant for their city. Tribune editor Ayan Mittra was joined for a relaxed Q&A by Dallas-area state Reps. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, Jessica González, D-Dallas, and Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, and state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas.
For most of the hour, Mittra asked questions and facilitated the conversation before opening up the forum for a couple of questions from the audience. Overall, the session hit on bills, such as House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 2, as well as budget and city issues, such as public education and property tax reform, maternal health care and health care legislation overall.
Question: I want to dive deeper into House Bill 3. … We talked a lot about the top lines, the figures, the $6.5 billion new spending, $5.1 billion going toward lowering property taxes. Per- student funding going up, full-day pre-K for more kids. … Could you talk, this is for the group, talk a little bit more about what actually schools, teachers and students, basically on the ground in Dallas, what will they see differently as a result of this bill? Not necessarily just the numbers, but what will actually change as a result.
Meyer: There’s another part in this bill, which is very, very important – DISD led the way on merit-based pay for teachers and saw how that can transform school districts. I believe, and I believe these are the numbers, that prior to Dallas instituting this program five years ago, there were about 40 failing schools. Within four years, it reduced the number down to four. … You’re going to see that throughout the state … incentivizing teachers to go to schools, which are otherwise not performing, helps not only the schools that they’re going to, but the school districts. And we made it as well, which folks should know, we made it to where it is elective by the school districts. … We said, look, we are here to provide you the resources, but we believe you know best on how to allocate those resources. And I think you’re going to see that in Dallas and elsewhere throughout the state.
Button: I’d like to talk about the background of how we put this together and the efforts we made. … For example, the superintendent, Dr. Stone, she visited along with the delegation from Richardson, and I showed her the cups that our speaker, Dennis Bonnen, put together and put into the members’ lounge. It says, “School Finance Reform Now,” which means, if you don’t repeat that to yourself three times a day, you don’t get to have any coffee. And that really made a difference when I showed Dr. Stone. … She was very moved … and she brought it back to show that to her folks, her staff – how hard we tried to get things done. Then, Chairman Dan Huberty, my hat is off. He worked so diligently. … No matter where Chairman Huberty was, he was able to get back with us. … The speaker joked about how, if there’s any superintendent in the state that hasn’t talked to Huberty, that’s because of their fault. It’s not that Huberty didn’t want to spend time to talk with them. … It has been so hard all those years trying to make a difference, but we finally got it down. I was so moved by all the people getting involved.
González: Well, two of the main districts that I represent are DISD and Grand Prairie ISD. I think two of the main impacts that the districts will feel is the funding that we get per student and also less money that goes into recapture. … Now, the bill isn’t perfect. Everybody wasn’t completely 100% happy about it, but it’s a starting point, right? And it was a way to get started, and this is where the work begins. Working together on how we can improve it, how to sustain it.
Johnson: It isn’t perfect, but it was one of the examples of this past legislative session where compromise and pitting opposing forces against each other, I think, did result in something quite good. … This is overall a good bill, and we’re going to be able to evaluate overtime, and things that aren’t working we’ll fix. … I think probably the single biggest victory for this district, and it’s common throughout the state, but especially for Dallas, is the all-day pre-K.
Question: Okay, so everyone on the panel here backed HB3. I’d like to transition to a bill that did not have the support of everyone on the panel and that’s SB2, Senate Bill 2, which is the property tax legislation. Some of the top lines there is basically to create a 3.5% election trigger for most cities and counties, create an online database that helps bring about more transparency with property appraisals and property tax assessments and allotments. And then … there was a separate rollback trigger for community colleges and hospital districts. First, I’d like to start with the Republicans on the panel about what was right with this bill, and then I’d like to have the Democrats on the panel follow up with what their concerns were about the legislation.
González: What is right about this bill is because the voters are telling us. I know the local city officials are not necessarily happy about that, but the fact is the voters are telling us that this property tax has been really, really a major pain to the majority of the voters, and we have to listen to their concerns. … It is our responsibility to respond to the voters of our state, but one thing people don’t realize is … that bill also gave us the transparency and also the methods, the most effective ways, to enable the voters to make the protest to understand their property tax. What really was calculated, the appraisal process, where, when and how to make their concerns heard. So, I think that part of it, the transparency and the effectiveness in communication is equally important. Of course, it’s not perfect, but on the other hand, you know, we’ve got to do something, and it has been long overdue.
Meyer: I’m going to respectfully disagree with your premise, because this bill has bipartisan support. That is one thing which is lost sometimes in the narrative; it’s lost sometimes in the reporting. I believe Canales was there at the signing yesterday. I don’t remember how many Democrats voted for it, but I do know a number did, so this is a bipartisan bill. … It is an election trigger, to where if cities come to us or come to the voters and say, “Hey look, we need this for X, Y or Z,” the voters get a chance to say. And that was one of the biggest concerns for my constituents … the ability to have tax reform. And we also provided tax relief in HB3, which sometimes goes unnoticed, but we put $5 billion in HB3 into tax compression and depressing the rates. So, for us, this was about transparency. … It was about having the voters have a say.
Johnson: There was bipartisan support for tax relief, and although that phrase is a little hollow, there was certainly support. I certainly support it; I campaigned on it. I know Rep. González takes controlling the rising tax rates very, very seriously. I’m sure some Democrats voted for it [SB2] in the House. I don’t know, maybe a couple did in the Senate; I sure didn’t. If I could vote again tomorrow, I’d vote against it again, and here’s why. I think the entire concept of clamping down on the ability of cities to raise revenue is shifting blame to the cities for the faults of the state. The fact that your taxes got out of control has largely to do with the failure of the state to fund our school system. … I’m saying there were better ways to address this problem. We could have fixed a problem with the tax code, which has shifted the burden of property taxes onto homeowners in favor of large property owners. … That would have been a better way in my view. That said, we started out with 2.5% with no exceptions, we wound up with a 3.5% trigger … and exceptions for hospital districts, exceptions for community college districts, exceptions for indigent health care and indigent defense. Okay, that’s better. That’s a little more manageable. I still think it’s an insult to our city government, and it’s an insult to the relationship between you as constituents and your city council members, and your mayors, and your county commissioners and your school board members. If you don’t like your taxes, don’t vote for them. Something needed to be done. I hope this is a workable method. I hope this is one of those places where I can go, “Yeah okay, I guess it works.” But I still don’t think it was a good idea. I think it was frankly kind of populist and facile.
González: In my opinion, I think this bill was more symbolic than anything. I think that we all understand how property taxes are tied to public education funding, and giving the mere impression that we are addressing property tax issues. … I mean, our constituents wanted us to address this in a meaningful way, in a way that they’re going to feel it, and people aren’t going to feel this. And I don’t feel that tying the hands of our local government is going to get us there.
Johnson: I do want to address that most of your property tax relief came through House Bill 3, which all of us supported. More than 50% of the local property tax bill is attributable to education dollars and the mechanisms that were put in place through the school finance bill, the school finance reform bill, I think actually are going to be very helpful. We have exceptions for hospital districts and community college districts. What’s left? City and counties – that’s roughly a third of your property tax bill. So, these tax caps that are coming at the expense of local control are going to have a very small effect on your ultimate tax bill. And if you ask me if I’d rather save 80 bucks next year or have all the potholes on my street fixed, you can guess which one I’m going to vote for.
The Dallas and the 86th Legislature Q&A session video can be found at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/06/13/dallas-86th-legislative-recap-watch.