If at first you don’t succeed, try again.
That’s the attitude District 54 state Rep. Brad Buckley has adopted after legislation he authored failed to get through the Senate in the recently concluded session of the Texas Legislature.
The measure, House Bill 634, was designed to provide monetary relief for cities disproportionately impacted by the state-mandated disabled veterans property tax exemption. It would have expanded the number of cities eligible to receive state compensation for losing revenue to the exemption — including Harker Heights and Nolanville.
Killeen already receives some compensation, since it directly borders Fort Hood. Cities such as Heights and Nolanville, which are situated near the military post but don’t border it, are currently ineligible to receive state relief.
HB 634 would have allowed cities with extraterritorial jurisdiction — the unincorporated area outside city limits where a municipality can exercise oversight — within two miles of a military installation to be eligible to seek financial relief related to the exemption.
But while the bill to expand compensation sailed through the House by a vote of 145-2, it stalled in the Senate, where it was locked up in the Senate Finance Committee and never reached the floor of the chamber for a vote.
Buckley, a first-term legislator from Salado, said Friday that state Sen. Dawn Buckingham worked hard to advance the bill in the Senate, but the Finance Committee chair had expressed opposition to expanding the relief program before the session began.
Consequently, the bill never came to a vote, and Harker Heights and Nolanville will receive no state compensation until at least the next legislative session in 2021.
That’s a potential problem for Harker Heights, where 1,146 exempt homesteads represent nearly $247 million in taxable value — or around 13 percent of the city’s tax base. Moreover, the nearly $1.5 million lost to the exemption this year represents a 40% jump from 2017. A similar increase over the next two years could put a significant dent in the city’s budget.
Killeen, meanwhile, may see more state money over the next two years.
That’s because the Legislature approved an increase in funding for cities that qualify for the existing reimbursement program.
Buckley said that if Gov. Abbott signs off on the budget as approved, the reimbursement pool will grow from $6.25 million to $20 million — $8.5 million in 2020 and $11 million in 2021. He anticipated the qualifying cities’ compensation will grow as well.
That’s a good thing, since Killeen’s 4,300 exempted properties represent more than $634 million — 11.3 percent of the city’s tax base. Yet Killeen expects to be reimbursed for only $1.2 million of the $4.76 million the city is losing in the current fiscal year.
Statewide, the average impact of the exemption per community is just 0.59 percent, or about $55,000 annually, according to figures from Hilary Shine, Killeen’s legislative liaison. Dallas’ exempted rate is 0.07%, resulting in an annual tax loss of $700,000, but if the city were impacted at Killeen’s rate, the effect on Dallas would be a whopping $113 million loss, Shine’s numbers show.
How much additional money Killeen receives from the larger reimbursement pool will be decided after the qualifying cities apply; then the state comptroller will review the budget and determine funding.
Buckley said that while he is disappointed HB 634 didn’t win final passage, he considers his first legislative session a learning experience, and he was heartened by the support he received in advancing the bill.
He said he was humbled by the outpouring of support local residents demonstrated — especially Killeen officials, chamber members and city residents. He noted that their work will be crucial to getting legislation passed in the future.
“This truly was a community effort,” Buckley said. “It was very gratifying to be a part of it.”
Looking ahead, he said he is determined to make achieving better reimbursement for impacted areas cities a priority over the next two years.
Still, Buckley, who was recognized by the House Republican Caucus as its Freshman of the Year, knows he has a lot of work ahead of him in getting a similar bill to the governor’s desk next time around — if he wins reelection in 2020.
One challenge that must be confronted is the Legislature’s procedural rule that prohibits bills from being read and brought to a vote in the first 60 days of the session. The archaic rule, Buckley said, comes from the days when big-city legislators could travel to Austin more easily than those who lived in remote, rural areas of the state. Delaying action for two months ensured that all lawmakers could be present for action on legislation.
Unfortunately, the Legislature’s procedural protocol reduces the amount of time bills can be considered to just 100 of the session’s 140 calendar days. That leaves a little over three months to read, amend, consider and reject or vote on the hundreds of measures that are introduced in the House and Senate.
And there are hundreds. During the recently concluded session, House and Senate lawmakers introduced 7,281 pieces of legislation and joint resolutions, according to ReformAustin.org. The Legislature took action on 3,342 of those, according to LegiScan.com.
Buckley said that during the just-completed session, he learned by observing that the most effective legislators advance their issues and find five or six ways to get them solved.
“We need to find several different ways to approach this,” Buckley said of expanding the reimbursement program. “We’ll take several bites of the apple next time.”
Buckley said he plans to form a “working group” of representatives from affected cities to discuss a way forward. He said he has already met with legislators from the military-connected cities of El Paso, Abilene and San Antonio, noting that the Killeen area’s issue today could be their problem tomorrow.
Buckley said he’s ready to move forward on finding a long-term solution to the compensation issue. He said that includes working with the comptroller’s office to crunch the numbers and examine the whole program.
That’s certainly the right approach, especially if the impact of the exemption on area cities continues to increase as it has in the past five years.
This is a program that must be fully developed, fully supported across the state and fully funded — for more than just two years at a time.
State legislators distinguished themselves this session by adopting significant property tax reforms, in response to a growing outcry from their constituents.
Rep. Buckley is well positioned to lead the charge to extend further reforms to more Texas communities that our nation’s disabled veteran service members call home.
It’s a noble cause — and well worth another try by our local legislators.