Texas Senate

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick informed several Democratic senators last week that if no deal on Senate Bill 2 had been reached by Monday, he would take the “nuclear option” — blowing past a tradition that requires three-fifths of senators to vote to bring a bill to the floor — to pass the measure.

The Texas Senate broke a logjam Monday that had paralyzed the upper chamber’s priority legislation for weeks, blunting a controversial provision in its property tax reform package and then advancing the bill without having to deploy a procedural “nuclear option.”

Though a vote on Senate Bill 2 had been expected last week, an apparent lack of support had stalled the vote in the upper chamber, where the backing of 19 senators is generally required to bring a bill up for debate. After Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened to blow past decades of tradition and take a “nuclear option”— bringing the measure to a vote with only a simple majority — state Sen. Kel Seliger, a vocal dissenter, relented, allowing the bill onto the floor for debate but insisting he ultimately would not support its passage.

Seliger’s announcement came alongside a reworked bill which, following a weekend of negotiations, came to the floor Monday with a handful of technical changes and one notable concession.

In a lengthy speech explaining his decision, Seliger criticized Patrick for even floating the “nuclear option” — and suggested his vote letting SB 2 advance was at least partly driven by a desire to prevent the Senate from taking a procedural move that “discredits this body.”

“We have a way to do things that I think is important. It underscores that we must be willing to compromise,” Seliger said. He added: “This bill’s going to pass. Right now, nobody can get in the way.”

A top imperative for state leaders, SB 2 initially sought to force cities, counties and other taxing units, like community colleges, to receive voter approval before raising 2.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. A substitute for the bill, unveiled on the Senate floor, raised the flashpoint 2.5% election trigger to 3.5% for all taxing units except school districts. They remain at 2.5%.

Democrats, municipal leaders and Seliger, a former mayor, have called the 2.5% figure punitively low, and said it would cripple local governments’ ability to provide public safety services. A one-percentage point increase is unlikely to appease them; the Senate and House deadlocked at higher thresholds of 4% and 6% in 2017.

Democratic senators proposed Monday dozens of amendments to exempt hospital districts, community colleges, and certain municipal services from parts of the property tax legislation. Most of the proposals failed on largely party lines.

One successful amendment, from Sen. Peter Flores, a freshman Republican from Pleasanton, allows for money counties spend on indigent defense to be partly excluded from the revenue growth calculation.

In the end, after around three hours of debate, 18 lawmakers voted for SB 2’s passage. Legislative rules require that the measure be voted on a final time by the upper chamber, before being sent to the House for further debate.

The House, meanwhile, has postponed a debate on its own property tax reform legislation — House Bill 2 — until April 24. Unlike the Senate’s version, the House has exempted hospital districts, community colleges, emergency service districts and school districts from abiding by a 2.5% election trigger.

Currently, taxing units can levy 8% more property tax revenue before voters can petition for an election to roll back the increase. SB 2 and HB 2 make those elections automatic, and propose a battery of widely-supported reforms designed to increase transparency and utility for taxpayers.

SB 2’s progress Monday came after more than two months of stalemate in the upper chamber, and after the Senate stalled again on Thursday, when the measure was expected to hit the floor for the first time. That evening, after hours of closed-door negotiations, Patrick informed several Democratic senators that if no deal had been reached by Monday, he would take the “nuclear option” — blowing past a tradition that requires three-fifths of senators to vote to bring a bill to the floor — to pass the measure.

That threat seems to have greased the skids for negotiations. As recently as Sunday night, Patrick signaled a willingness to take the “nuclear” step.

“If that is the only choice left to me to pass meaningful and lasting property tax reform and relief on Monday, I will use it,” he wrote in an email to supporters.

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