The eyes of Killeen-area residents should be on Austin over the next two weeks.
Two bills that could have a significant impact on the area stand an excellent chance of being signed into law before the Texas Legislature adjourns May 27.
The first bill, House Bill 634, would expand the eligibility for state relief for communities disproportionately affected by the property tax exemption given to disabled veterans.
The second bill, House Bill 2105, would expand the service area of Killeen area’s regional water district and enlarge the district’s board of directors if signed into law.
HB 634, authored by District 54 state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Salado, passed the House of Representatives by a resounding 145-2 vote on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate, where state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, is working to secure its passage.
The measure has huge implications. Under current law, only communities adjacent to military installations, such as Killeen, are eligible for financial relief from the state in regards to the property tax exemption. But HB 634 would amend the language to allow cities with extraterritorial jurisdiction within two miles of a military installation to be eligible to seek state money in compensation for the exemption.
If the bill becomes law, Harker Heights, which is losing $1.5 million annually in property tax revenue, will become eligible for state relief. Nolanville, Belton and Temple would also qualify under the measure.
As a result, the cities that stand to benefit may be able to free up more money for programs and services, or to offset potential tax or fee increases.
Buckley said Friday from the House floor that both the House and Senate have agreed to increase the budget for the compensation fund from $6.5 million to $20 million per biennium.
As of Friday afternoon, the bill was in the process of being referred to the Senate Finance Committee, with a vote by the full Senate possible this week.
The bill addressing the regional water district, Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, has major implications as well — both for its water customers and its governing board.
HB 2105, which was passed by the Senate late Friday morning, has been through some twists and turns since it was first introduced by District 55 state Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, in March.
Chief among those is the addition of language by WCID-1 general manager Ricky Garrett, that would have exempted the district from a provision in the Texas Water Code that bars developers from serving on a water district’s board of directors. That’s key, since the WCID-1 board president is a developer and several other members could be considered developers under the water code’s broad definition.
However, Shine was alerted to the last-minute change and substituted a bill with the original wording that subsequently received approval by the House. With Senate passage Friday, the bill now goes back to the House this week for a final signature and then to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for his signature.
Residents should consider this bill’s successful passage a victory for oversight and democracy.
When WCID-1 had an election in May 2018, it was the first one the district had conducted in 24 years. Because the district hadn’t expanded its boundaries in that time, only residents living within Killeen’s 1984 city limits were eligible to vote.
As a result of the election, an incumbent was turned out and Richard “Dick” Young, a candidate who had run on a platform of more openness and transparency, took his place.
Then late last year, the board approved a plan to expand the district’s boundaries and the size of the water board but do away with elections in the process. Young expressed his opposition to the plan and voted against it — the only board member to do so.
Selected board members and the general manager pushed this proposal to local city councils and Rep. Buckley, in hopes of securing enough support to make it easier to gain passage of legislation encompassing these changes.
However, Killeen-area residents recognized they could lose their right to vote for a governmental body that set their water rates and had the ability to levy taxes — and they spoke up.
When the proposal came before the Killeen City Council, council members backed WCID-1’s plan, but not the provision to eliminate elections.
The board subsequently dropped its plan to go to an appointed board and drew up legislation that continues board elections.
Under the new setup, WCID-1 water customers from Copperas Cove to Belton will have representation on the board and will be eligible to vote in board elections, starting in 2020.
As such, they will also have oversight over the board members who prioritize district projects and set their water rates.
And those elected members will not be stakeholders in the development community.
None of this likely would have happened if residents — and one board member — hadn’t been alert to discussions and decisions behind the scenes.
The same can be said for local residents who rallied behind the property tax exemption measure.
Buckley said representatives from the Killeen and Harker Heights chambers of commerce, as well as other local community members, made repeated trips to the Capitol to rally support for the bill to expand eligibility for financial relief.
Buckley said that support was instrumental in his ability to garner support from lawmakers from across the state and secure their votes for the legislation.
He also called the water district legislation, which he co-authored, “a good governance bill” that benefits all stakeholders involved, noting it promotes the way government should work for the people. Buckley said he is proud to have worked with Shine to secure its passage.
It’s often been said that it’s not a good idea to watch how laws or sausage are made. Indeed, both processes can be quite messy.
Still, it pays to keep an eye on all potential legislation — and those who craft it.
And good legislation, like good sausage, can be extremely satisfying indeed.