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A sad day for open government in Texas

On Saturday night, in less than one hour, both houses of the Texas Legislature overwhelmingly approved the Conference Committee report on the property tax reform bill that eliminates an important public notice in newspapers — a notice informing voters how much their taxes are about to increase.

Ironically, the title of SB 2, the much-ballyhooed “property tax reform” bill that was supposed to make local governments more accountable, is the “Texas Taxpayer Transparency Act of 2019.”  Yet the final bill, weakening transparency — which would have caused an uproar had it been debated in an open committee meeting as required by regular legislative rules — was shoved through both houses with less than 48 hours remaining. Rank-and-file members could only vote it up or down.

To add insult to injury, this assault on democracy happened on Memorial Day weekend/high school graduation weekend — a time when few citizens were thinking about the legislature.

It was a textbook case of cynical legislative gamesmanship that clearly had the blessing of legislative leadership.  And it worked. The governor is certain to sign it, since just two days ago he and legislative leaders declared tax reform a done deal. He is not about to veto the bill and force a special session.

In the most anti-transparent manner one could imagine, the Texas House approved a conference committee report by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Eight minutes later, the amendment passed 88-50. The intent of removing the notice of tax increases from newspapers in this video.

The provision to remove notice of tax increases was not included in either the House or Senate version of the bill, but was quietly slipped into the Conference Committee report late on Friday.

The amendment allows taxing entities such as cities, counties, and school districts to merely post a notice online when they are about to raise your taxes. The House approved the amendment and sent SB 2 back to the Senate, which went outside the bounds on a motion by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hill’s, and voted 21-9 to approve it.

While other notice postings were kept in the bill, the manner in which this provision was “slipped in” at the last minute is concerning for those who favor open government and opens the door to similar actions in the future.

It was a sad day for open government in Texas.

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