AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas Republicans want to use billions in federal pandemic relief to send checks to homeowners just ahead of next year's November elections - and call it property tax relief.
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House lawmakers are pushing a proposal that would put $525 checks in the mailboxes of some 5.7 million homeowners who claim a homestead exemption - by tapping $3 billion sent to the state under the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill aimed at pandemic relief.
Senate Bill 1, which passed out of the House on Friday afternoon, is a roundabout way for Republican legislators to deliver on a longtime pet issue - property tax relief - without running afoul of a federal rule barring the use of stimulus dollars for tax cuts.
The bill originally came over from the Senate as a straight-up tax cut bill. House lawmakers gutted the Senate proposal to use it as a vehicle for the $3 billion in checks for homeowners. Now, lawmakers in both chambers will have to work out a compromise.
House lawmakers have justified the use of federal relief money, saying their plan addresses "negative economic impacts" resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic "including assistance to households."
Not all households would benefit. Excluded from that relief are renters, who make up more than a third of Texans.
"Here's the problem: A third of Texans don't own their property," state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said during debate on the House floor. "So none of this $3 billion would go to the one-third of Texans who rent. Not a penny."
Republicans argued that renters have already been taken care of because Texas has already received $2 billion in federal stimulus money for rent relief, state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, said.
"I think everyone has been hit hard by the pandemic, Mr. Wu," said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who carried the bill in the House. "Everyone."
The checks would arrive no later than Sept. 1 - about a month before voters head to the polls next year for early voting in the November midterm elections. Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst with the liberal-leaning Every Texan, blasted the proposal as a "transparent political ploy."
"They'll have to print the check on legal size paper to fit the signatures of all the people who want to take credit for it," Lavine said.
Republicans tried to head off criticism that the checks would be politically timed.
The bill previously gave Comptroller Glenn Hegar until July 1 to identify property owners eligible to receive the money. Meyer amended the bill to move that date up to May 1, possibly allowing homeowners to get paid sooner.
The House proposal is significantly different from a $2 billion tax cut proposal that sailed through the state Senate last month intended to take about $200 off of an average Texas homeowner's tax bill.
That measure - authored by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's point person on property taxes - would use $2 billion in state surplus funds to "buy down" public education funding normally collected by school property taxes, which make up most of a homeowner's tax bill.
A homeowner whose property is worth $300,000, the median value of a Texas home, would see $200 in temporary tax relief under the Senate proposal - though that could grow depending on how much the Texas economy grows by next June.
Bettencourt did not respond to a request for comment.
Republicans are under pressure from the party's right wing to tackle the state's high property tax burden in one way or another.
Gov. Greg Abbott added property tax relief to the third special session agenda in September - after primary challenger Don Huffines, a former state senator, blasted Abbott for initially leaving it off the table. Abbott had included it in previous sessions this year, but nothing passed.
Patrick, meanwhile, called legislation cutting property taxes his top priority for this special session, which has a packed agenda that includes figuring out how to spend $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief dollars and redrawing the state's political maps.
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Texas House wants to use federal COVID relief funds to send out $525 checks - but only to homeowners