Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman testifies against SB 2

Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman on Tuesday urged lawmakers in Austin to vote down Senate Bill 2, the controversial bill that would require municipalities get voter approval on tax increases over 4 percent.

Zimmerman testified before the Senate Finance Committee as part of a marathon hearing that lasted late into the night even though the committee at the start of the session ordered that comments be capped at two minutes from the typical three minutes, as Texans seeking to weigh in on the bill packed the committee chambers.

During his testimony, Zimmerman blasted the legislation, telling the committee that SB 2 “doesn’t provide meaningful tax relief or tax reform. That can only be done by addressing public school finance."

Whether SB 2 would be effective in keeping property taxes affordable for Texas homeowners was debated by committee members throughout the hearing. But beyond its mechanics, Zimmerman also criticized the broader implications the bill’s passage would have in taking away some decision-making ability from locally elected officials.

“It takes away responsibility that voters have given our city council,” he said.

As an example of the effects of losing that decision-making ability, Zimmerman told the committee that Sugar Land would not have been able to afford to increase the city’s homestead exemption—a tax break offered to homeowners who live in their property—as it did last year if it had been unable to recoup that money from other sources such as businesses.

“We did that because we wanted the citizens to get the tax relief,” he said. “We provided that tax relief, but this bill would prevent us from doing that.

“I’ve been in city government for five years, and I’ve never had a business come to me and say that our tax rate is too high,” he said.

Long after Zimmerman had provided his testimony, the committee members in the early morning hours voted the bill out of committee in a 9-5 split with an amendment that capped tax increases at 5 percent instead of 4 percent as proposed in the original legislation. The amendment was offered by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.

Those voting against the bill include Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Before Zimmerman was called to testify, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, got into fiery debates with some other senators. Railing against the notion of property taxes hikes, Bettencourt told the committee how as the Harris County tax collector he kept his budget nearly flat for 10 years even though his office’s workload increased in that time.

The comparison drew the ire of Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

“As a tax collector you don’t run a police department; you don’t do sanitation,” Whitmire said. “How in the hell do you compare a tax collector’s office to running a municipal government?”