05/01/19

Meet the Property Tax Reform Players (and the Money Behind them)

With the 86th legislative session rapidly drawing to a close, all eyes are on the Senate and House bills that could reform Texas property taxes — and now, by extension, school financing — if they are passed in time.

So who are the power players (and their backers) who could be key in pushing property tax reform through in the next 26 days — or stopping it from happening?

State Representative Dustin Burrows:

As Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, State Rep. Dustin Burrows, HD 83 (Lubbock), was tasked with shepherding the property tax bill through the House. He was also responsible for the amendment which tied the property tax reform bill to the school finance bill, and he will serve on the Conference Committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions.

Burrows’ top donors in the last election cycle:

  1. Alice Walton– $10,000.00 Ms. Walton, Wal-Mart heiress and Fort Worth resident, is, according to Forbes, the richest woman in the world. As a prolific political donor, her gifts to Texas politicians typically favor Republicans, but also the occasional Democrat. She made headlines with her generous support of Hilary Clinton in 2016.
  2. Texas Association of Realtors PAC – $7,739.85 As the most well-funded PAC in Texas, the Realtors are known for throwing their substantial financial heft behind liberal Republicans and the occasional Democrat. Interestingly, the Realtors are on record disagreeing with the original version of HB2 and calling for a higher property tax rate increase before voter approval is required.
  3. Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC– $7,644.40 This PAC typically supports incumbents and moderate Republicans.
  4. Oncor Texas State PAC – $6,000.00 This corporate PAC supports statewide officeholders as well as Democrat and Republican incumbents. Like most corporate PACs, their giving tends to support those in power, rather than a particular ideology.
  5. AFSCME Texas Correctional Officers PAC – $5,000.00 This union-related PAC supports moderate to liberal Republican members of the Texas House.
  6. Texans for Honesty PAC $5,000.00 Attorney General Ken Paxton and Burrows were the only recipients of funds from this PAC in the last four years.
  7. Trevor Ahlberg– $5,000.00 Mr. Ahlberg is the CEO and owner of Cottonwood Financial, the parent company of The Cash Store. A consistent and generous donor to Texas politics, Mr. Ahlberg’s contributions tend to favor those in power rather than any particular ideology.
  8. Blackridge – $4,000.00 Blackridge is one of Austin’s most prominent lobbying firms. Russell Kelley, the firm’s top lobbyist, made more money representing taxpayer-funded clients than any other lobbyist during the last legislative session. Many of Mr. Kelley’s taxpayer-funded clients are adamantly opposed to SB2 and property tax reform.
  9. Richard Weekly – $3,500.00 Mr. Weekly is the founder of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, mentioned above. Always a top donor to Texas politics, Mr. Weekley’s largess primarily benefits moderate and liberal Republicans, but he also occasionally supports a conservative Republican or Democrat.
  10. Atmos Energy Corporation PAC – $3,000.00 Giving by this corporate PAC tends to support those in power, rather than a particular ideology.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt:

As Chairman of the Property Tax Committee in the Texas Senate, State Senator Paul Bettencourt, SD7 (the northwest portion of the Greater Houston Area), led the Senate to pass SB2, which would lower the rate at which voters must approve a tax increase from eight percent to 3.5 percent for cities, counties, and special districts and 2.5 percent for school districts. Bettencourt will serve on the Conference Committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of SB2.

Here’s a look at Bettencourt’s top donors from the most recent election cycle:

  1. Holloway Frost & Kathaleen Wall– $26,000.00 This Houston power couple ranks consistently among the top ten donors to Texas politicians and PACs. Their largesse most often benefits conservative Republicans.
  2. Texas Association of Realtors PAC– $25,000.00 While Realtors gave more than three times as much support to Bettencourt as Burrows, this is not necessarily a sign that they prefer him. Rather, Senate candidates typically collect larger donations because they are up for election less often, their districts are larger, and their campaigns are typically more expensive.
  3. Harris County Republican Party – $19,975.00 Bettencourt is the former vice president and treasurer of the Harris County GOP so it makes sense they would support one of their own.
  4. Windi & David Grimes II – $15,000.00 The list of recipients of political donations from this Houston couple reads like a Who’s Who of the most conservative candidates — both incumbents and challengers — in the last election cycle.
  5. Kim Stevens – $15,000.00 Ms. Stevens is the CEO of a Houston-based company that owns apartment complexes. In addition to donating to Governor Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, her contributions have benefitted State Senator Bettencourt and State Rep. Dwayne Bohac. Both men represent northwest Houston.
  6. Popp Hutcheson PLLC – $15,000.00 This Austin-based firm specializes in advocating for property tax reform.
  7. Texans for Lawsuit Reform – $15,000.00 Texans for Lawsuit Reform gave almost double the financial backing to Bettencourt compared to Burrows, but this is likely because Senate races occur less often and are typically more expensive than House races, rather than a reflection of TLR’s preference for one lawmaker over the other.
  8. Friends of the University PAC– $10,000.00 This PAC is the political giving arm of the University of Texas Austin. Bettencourt has served on the Higher Education Committee in the Texas Senate for the last three sessions.
  9. Texas Apartment Association PAC – $10,000.00 It is no surprise that an apartment association would donate to the chairman of the Property Tax Committee. Apartments — just like houses– have been hit by the steep rise in property taxes.
  10. Barbara & John L. Nau III – $10,000.00 Another Houstonian, John L. Nau III, is the President and CEO of Silver Eagle Distributors, the largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products in the United States. Mr. and Mrs. Nau tend to support statewide candidates and more liberal Republicans.

Texas Mayors

A number of Texas mayors have come out against SB2 and HB2, claiming that property tax reforms would tie the hands of local governments and even prevent them from funding local law enforcement and emergency personnel. The mayors of Amarillo, Austin, Burleson, Cedar Hill, Conroe, Corpus Christie, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Worth, Galveston, Garland, Georgetown, Grand Prairie, Houston, Irving, Lubbock, McKinney, Pflugerville, Plano, Richardson, Round Rock, San Antonio, South Lake, and Sugarland all signed a letter addressed to Burrows expressing their lack of support for allowing voters to approve property tax increases at a rate lower than eight percent.

Texas Municipal League and Texas Association of Counties

The Texas Municipal League (TML) and Texas Association of Counties (TAC) have been some of the most vocal opponents of property tax reform. Like the mayors mentioned above, they contend that having to ask citizens to approve tax increases will hamstring local governments and prevent emergency services. While neither TML or TAC uses a PAC to make donations directly to candidates, they instead play a strong “inside game.” TML and TAC currently employ a whopping 13 and 16 lobbyists respectively.

What to look for:

With less than four weeks left in this legislative session and the major pieces of legislation lumped together in a codependent heap, it will be interesting to watch how the players interact and how the drama unfolds. Transparency Texas will be keeping an eye out to report back to the most important player of all — you, the Texas citizen.

Next week we’ll take a look at the money behind the key players in the school finance reform debate. Join us here to be sure our latest updates are delivered straight to your inbox.

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