The last-ditch effort by state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Salado, to get his central issue of expanding the program to reimburse counties and cities affected by the 100% disabled veterans property tax exemption to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk ultimately failed.
Now, the two-term representative said it is time to regroup.
“It puts us back to where we started,” Buckley said Thursday after the issue failed a second time right before the session ended. “In my opinion, we’re going to have to come up with another way ...”
On Saturday, Buckley told a group of around four dozen members and guests of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 29 that, if given the opportunity in the next session, presenting the same plan to his legislative colleagues would likely be counterproductive.
Buckley has indicated that he is leaning toward running again in 2022, but he has not made an official announcement.
Harker Heights Mayor Spencer Smith said Saturday that taking a fresh approach would be good.
“I think that’s a good idea — try different angles,” Smith said after hearing Buckley speak at the DAV. “Rep. Buckley’s really carried the water for us, so to speak, down there.”
On May 24, Buckley authored an amendment to Senate Bill 794 after it got to the House floor. The bill had originally passed the Senate in April.
Buckley’s amendment would have done the same thing as his House Bill 125 that effectively died May 13 when it ultimately did not make it for a vote in the House.
It would have expanded eligibility for state reimbursement for municipalities disproportionately affected by the 100% disabled veterans property tax exemption to Harker Heights and Nolanville, along with other cities within two miles of a military installation.
Senate Bill 794 updated the wording of the state law pertaining to the 100% disabled veterans property tax exemption.
It changes the wording from “A veteran who receives from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs...” to “A veteran who has been awarded by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs...”
After a conference committee stripped the amendment, it ultimately passed both chambers and was sent to Abbott. When he signs it, the wording change will go into effect on Sept. 1.
Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, a strong supporter of the issue, had been selected as a member of the conference committee after the Senate rejected the amendment.
Buckley said that in a way to protest the removal of the amendment, Buckingham refused to sign the conference report.
When the final version of the bill, which was ultimately the original bill, made it back to the House, Buckley also participated in a form of protest by casting the only dissenting vote.
“I did not want anything to impact the exemption,” Buckley said Thursday. “But I did want to make a statement that I do not agree with the Senate’s — basically — inability to try to help solve this problem.”
The issue of reimbursing the cities has been central to Buckley since first being elected in 2018.
The Disabled Veterans homestead exemption was passed in 2009 during the 81st Legislative Session, which stated that veterans who have received 100% disabled status from the Department of Veterans Affairs are exempt from paying property taxes.
During the 82nd Legislative Session in 2011, Texas legislators added surviving spouses of qualified disabled veterans who have passed away as those who qualify for the exemption.
The reimbursement program was passed in 2015 by the 84th Legislature.
Currently, Killeen and Copperas Cove are the only cities in the area to qualify for the reimbursement, since their boundaries abut Fort Hood.
Both have had around half of their lost property tax revenue returned from the reimbursement program.
Smith called the loss of property tax revenue for cities such as Harker Heights an “unintended consequence” of the exemption, which he wanted to clarify that no one is suggesting the exemption program go away.
“They didn’t realize that, for us, it’s unsustainable,” Smith said. “It keeps increasing every year.”
He said Harker Heights lost about $2.5 million this past year and more than $11 million collectively since 2009. Smith also said there are currently in excess of 1,100 homes in the city not on the tax rolls because they are owned by 100% disabled veterans or surviving spouses.
Harker Heights Assistant City Manager Jerry Bark told House leaders during a public hearing for HB 125 in April that the city has lost as much as 30% of revenue in a fiscal year due to the property tax exemption.
“Where it comes down to being very practical is we need to build a third fire station,” Smith said. “Fire stations, you know, cost money to build, they cost money to equip and they cost money to man, and those are things that we don’t have the ability to do because we are having our revenue stream being cut down.”
Similarly, in Nolanville, Mayor Pro Tem David C. Williams II told the legislators during the public hearing that with the revenue lost, the city could fund four additional police officer positions.
Williams told the House leaders that Nolanville is considered a “bedroom community” and does not make as much as neighboring cities in sales tax revenue.
During the last week of the session, Buckley said he was not confident that the amendment would survive the conference committee.
Buckley said one senator in particular, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who was part of the Senate’s contingent in the conference committee, has been the staunchest opponent to the issue.
“She’s the one that has been so resistant to hearing any of the legislation we’ve passed in the past, or legislation that Sen. Buckingham tried to originate in the Senate. Sen. Nelson has been very resistant to any expansion or modification to the program,” Buckley said.
Nelson served as chair of the Senate Finance Committee that did not conduct a public hearing on a similar bill by Buckingham — Senate Bill 524.
“I did have a conversation with her last week,” Buckley said of Nelson. “She’s still quite adamant that the program does not need to be expanded.”
He said that what Nelson has communicated to him and Buckingham is that her support of the reimbursement program was based on an understanding that the program would not “creep,” or get larger to include more communities.
Buckley also said he believes other Senate leaders had similar views on the issue.
“I suspect the lieutenant governor (Dan Patrick) carries that same position, because he’s quite powerful in the Senate,” he said.
In an update to the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 29 in Harker Heights on Saturday, Buckley said that Patrick rules the Senate “with an iron fist.”
Buckley was not part of the House contingent of the conference committee, but he was confident that there were strong House leaders going to bat for him.
The House contingent included Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, and Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson.
Bonnen served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee last session, and Button was a coauthor of House Bill 125.
“Chairman of Appropriations is as powerful as you can get in the Texas House to advocate for it,” Buckley said. “He was there for the hearing when we laid the actual bill out. Chairman Bonnen has been supportive of the program.”
Buckley said he thought the House was represented in the conference committee by people who had more sway over Nelson.
Questions to Nelson’s office were not immediately returned to the Herald.
Steering the Senate
Buckley knows that if he has more opportunities to bring the issue before the Legislature again, it will take continued effort to sway the Senate.
“My colleagues in the House understand the issue, and they’re OK with the expansion and the modification of the program,” Buckley said. “The Texas Senate has shown really no willingness to expand it at all. And it’s certainly not from a lack of effort on Dr. Buckingham’s side.”
Buckley said he intends to stay busy while out of session to keep trying to pave a way for expansion of the reimbursement program to give relief to Harker Heights and Nolanville.
“We’ve talked to a lot of the stakeholders around Central Texas about coming up with possibly is there another way? Is there another funding mechanism?” Buckley said. “The problem is, we’ve been unable to find it.”
He said in the interim, he will look at establishing a working group to look into how they can attack the problem that is facing such cities.
Buckley said the working group may include people from as far as Lampasas County to parts of eastern Bell County.
“The problem is it is going to take another appropriation,” Buckley said. “There just isn’t another revenue stream except for some sort of an appropriation.”