Texas Republicans want to use federal Covid funds for tax relief — but only for homeowners

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.

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.

Gov. Greg Abbott and local officials are fighting several legal battles over mask mandates. Here’s what you need to know.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is locked in several pitched legal battles with cities, counties and school districts over their bids to require masks in public schools.

In a May executive order, Abbott banned local governments from requiring people to wear masks.

But as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spread across Texas and the state's vaccination rate stagnated, several public school and local government officials grew uneasy with Abbott's order — particularly as schoolchildren too young to get vaccinated returned to classrooms.

Some local officials defied Abbott and issued mask mandates for schools anyway. Others sued the state over Abbott's order. As dozens of ensuing legal battles continue playing out, Texas parents have found themselves caught in confusion about whether their children have to mask up at school.

Which local governments are suing the state?

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:36 a.m.

When it became clear Abbott wasn't going to reverse his ban on mask mandates, a slew of school districts, cities and counties sued Abbott to enact their own mandates. Others simply ignored Abbott's order and put mask-wearing rules in place anyway.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of the many entities that have sued Abbott:

  • Aldine Independent School District
  • Austin Community College
  • Austin Independent School District
  • Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco Independent School District
  • Bexar County
  • Brownsville Independent School District
  • City of El Paso
  • City of San Antonio
  • Crowley Independent School District
  • Dallas College
  • Dallas County
  • Dallas Independent School District
  • DeSoto Independent School District
  • Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District
  • Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District
  • El Paso Independent School District
  • Fort Bend County
  • Fort Bend Independent School District
  • Fort Worth Independent School District
  • Harris County
  • Hidalgo Independent School District
  • Houston Independent School District
  • La Joya Independent School District
  • Lancaster Independent School District
  • Lasara Independent School District
  • Northside Independent School District
  • Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District
  • Spring Independent School District
  • Travis County

Which school districts are being sued by the state?

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:35 a.m.

After Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened for weeks to sue those defying Abbott's order, they made good on their promise in September. Paxton has sued a number of school districts for allegedly flouting Abbott's ban:

  • Diboll Independent School District
  • Elgin Independent School District
  • Galveston Independent School District
  • Honey Grove Independent School District
  • La Vega Independent School District
  • Longview Independent School District
  • Lufkin Independent School District
  • McGregor Independent School District
  • Midway Independent School District
  • Paris Independent School District
  • Richardson Independent School District
  • Round Rock Independent School District
  • Sherman Independent School District
  • Spring Independent School District
  • Waco Independent School District

Which side is winning in court?

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:33 a.m.

That depends on the lawsuit and the court.

Often, local officials find favor with lower court judges who block Abbott's order and allow locals to enact mask mandates — though some of those judges have sided against mask mandates. The state Supreme Court has temporarily overturned some of those mandates — only for a lower court judge to reinstate them and start the legal churn all over again.

That legal back-and-forth has led to a confusing patchwork of mask mandates across the state.

How do I know what the rules are in my school district?

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:35 a.m.

Because each Texas school district makes its own rules — and decides whether to abide by Abbott's ban or flout it — there is no one statewide policy in place. Plus, the ongoing legal battles have spurred orders from courts at all levels that quickly change what rules are in place. The best way to know your local rules are to check with your school district.

Not all districts being sued have mask mandates

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:34 a.m.

Midway Independent School District near Waco doesn't require students, teachers, school staff or visitors to wear masks while on school premises. Nonetheless, the district wound up on a list compiled by the attorney general's office of school districts and counties that have made mask-wearing compulsory — and in court with Paxton.

Another Waco-area district, McGregor Independent School District, opted not to enforce a mask-wearing requirement that kicks in when virus transmission became too severe — a decision made at Paxton's request, Superintendent James Lenamon said. Nonetheless, Paxton sued.

What are the main arguments both sides are making?

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:34 a.m.

In court documents, Abbott and Paxton have argued state law makes the governor the "commander-in-chief" of the state's disaster response — which they say gives Abbott the authority to overrule cities, counties and public schools that try to enact mask mandates.

Yet Abbott and Paxton also have argued that neither one of them has the authority to enforce Abbott's ban — a power that lies with district attorneys.

Local officials counter that state law does not give Abbott absolute authority during disasters. Cities, counties and schools have argued that Abbott's disaster powers don't give him the authority to prevent localities from enacting measures intended to ameliorate the crisis — like mask mandates.

A separate lawsuit argues Abbott's ban violates federal protections for students with disabilities

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:33 a.m.

Separately, a group of 14 children with disabilities has sued Abbott in federal court arguing that his order is discriminatory because it prevents them from returning to a safe school environment — in violation of federal protections for students with disabilities. That case hasn't yet gone to trial.

Why is Abbott opposed to local mask mandates?

Sept. 20, 2021 at 9:28 a.m.

In July, Abbott argued "that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates." But he and Paxton are also under considerable political pressure from their right flank to bring the hammer down on local officials who enact measures like mask mandates — which are highly unpopular among hard-right conservatives. Both men have drawn primary challengers from their right in their 2022 reelection bids.

Abbott even called on Texas lawmakers to send him a bill to stop school officials from requiring mask-wearing. But they didn't.

On top of that, the Texas Education Agency isn't enforcing Abbott's ban — which so far has been enough to convince the Biden administration not to go after Texas for blocking school district mask mandates as it has in other states.

Texas AG sues 6 school districts for defying Greg Abbott and mandating masks

For the first time in the Texas mask wars, Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing six school districts that have defied Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on local masking orders.

Paxton on Friday sued the Elgin, Galveston, Richardson, Round Rock, Sherman and Spring school districts for requiring students, teachers, school employees and visitors to don face coverings while on their premises, which he dubbed "unlawful political maneuvering."

"If districts choose to spend their money on legal fees, they must do so knowing that my office is ready and willing to litigate these cases," Paxton said in a statement. "I have full confidence that the courts will side with the law – not acts of political defiance."

Dozens of school districts across the state have defied Abbott and issued mask mandates. It was not immediately clear late Friday why Paxton chose the six districts he sued.

The governor's executive order bars local officials from compelling people to wear masks. Until this week, Abbott and Paxton have been on defense as several school districts, cities and counties in the state's major metropolitan areas have sued over the order — or outright ignored it.

Some 85 school districts and six counties have instituted mask mandates of some kind in defiance of Abbott's ban — citing the need to protect schoolchildren too young to get the vaccine amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

The legal push-and-pull between the state's Republican leadership and local officials has led to a patchwork of rules about mask-wearing across the state as judges uphold, revoke and reinstate the various requirements, creating confusion for Texans about whether they or their kids must wear a mask.

Abbott had called on Texas lawmakers to send him a bill that would definitively stop school officials from requiring students, teachers and other school employees to wear face coverings. But the prospect never gained steam in the Legislature.

Abbott and Paxton for weeks have threatened local governments and public schools that adopted masking rules with legal action — a threat Paxton made good on this week.

Round Rock Independent School District officials did not comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement that the mask requirement is helping their schools stay open.

"We do work closely with both our local health authorities in Williamson and Travis counties who advise us that masks remain an essential tool in stemming the spread of COVID-19 in our classrooms," Round Rock ISD officials said.

Spring Independent School District officials haven't yet seen Paxton's lawsuit, they said in a statement Friday — and only learned about it through a press release from the attorney general's office.

"Spring ISD will let the legal process unfold and allow the courts to decide the merits of the case," officials said.

Richardson Independent School District officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The remaining school districts did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In at least one lawsuit filed Thursday evening, Paxton asked a Galveston County judge to temporarily halt Galveston Independent School District's mask mandate — arguing that Abbott has the power to override local emergency orders.

Abbott's order "has the force and effect of state law and must be followed, regardless of whether local officials agree with it," Paxton wrote in the lawsuit.

However, neither Abbott nor Paxton have the power to enforce the governor's ban themselves, they have argued in court documents.

In addition, the Texas Education Agency isn't requiring schools to comply with Abbott's ban. That move so far has led the Biden administration to leave Texas out of a federal investigation into a group of states that have blocked school districts from mandating masks.

Gov. Greg Abbott wanted state lawmakers to ban mask mandates in public schools. They didn’t.

As the Texas war over mask mandates rages in the courts and in school board meetings, state legislators decided to stay out of the fight and leave Gov. Greg Abbott to his own devices.

To stop a growing number of school districts from defying Abbott's ban on mask mandates, the governor had called on Texas lawmakers to put a bill on his desk that would once and for all bar school officials from requiring students, teachers and other school employees to wear face coverings — and put an end to the constant back-and-forth in the courts that has created a confusing patchwork of mask rules across the state.

But in a special session that saw the passage of a number of Abbott's priorities — among them a controversial GOP elections bill and a bill to forbid the teaching of "critical race theory" — the prospect of banning local governments and public schools from creating their own mask requirements never gained traction.

As Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton vowed to punish any school district that defied Abbott's ban, a bill by state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, to prevent school boards from putting mask mandates in place fell apart in the final week of the session.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, didn't even bother to put up a bill dealing with masks, and lawmakers left Austin on Thursday night without weighing in on mask mandates at all.

That left the battle in the courts, where for the past month, the fight between Abbott and cities, counties and school districts has created chaos and confusion as different judges have reached different conclusions about whether to uphold mask mandates or block them.

"I think now people are beginning to engage in anarchy because they recognize that their particular locale may require a mask mandate irrespective of what the governor or anybody else says," state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said.

Dutton had his own bill that would have left it up to school boards to decide whether they wanted to require mask-wearing. Last week, he and Leach appeared to reach a compromise on the matter: School boards would be allowed to require masks, but parents could opt their kids out if they chose.

"If a child walks into a school without a mask, I don't believe it should be the policy of any school district to prevent that child from entering the doors of their public school especially if they have their parents' permission to opt out of that requirement," Leach told lawmakers on the House Public Education Committee at a hearing last week.

But that deal soon fell apart. Leach laid out a number of proposed revisions that Dutton considered unreasonable. For example, public schools would not have been allowed to publish or provide data showing how many students had been exempted from mask-wearing policies.

"That was far beyond what I considered to be allowing the districts to have their own mask policy," Dutton said.

Both bills died when the Legislature ended the special session without passing them.

Abbott and Leach did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

While Abbott and Paxton have threatened local governments and public schools that enact mask mandates that flout Abbott's ban, they have argued in court that they can't enforce it.

On top of that, the Texas Education Agency isn't enforcing Abbott's executive order in schools — which was enough to convince the Biden administration not to pursue a legal battle against the state for blocking school districts' mask-wearing rules.

Some Republicans have acknowledged the confusion. During the House committee hearing Monday, state Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio Republican, noted the conflicting messages on masking from all levels of government gives "the appearance of being very dysfunctional."

But there has been little will among state Republican legislators to address that dysfunction, political observers and GOP consultants said.

It's possible GOP lawmakers are waiting on the state Supreme Court to issue some kind of final ruling to settle the myriad legal fights over masks before they move forward with any kind of bill, said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"I don't think any legislator wants to deal with it right now because they know it is radioactive," Taylor said.

Hard-right conservatives have pressured Abbott and Paxton to come down hard on local officials who defy Abbott and enact their own mask mandates.

The governor doesn't appear to have applied that same pressure to sympathetic House lawmakers, conservative political consultant Luke Macias said.

"The reason you're not currently seeing it is because Gov. Abbott is not all that concerned with the fact that his executive orders are being worked around," Macias said.

Whether Abbott faces any backlash from a Republican primary electorate over the lack of legislative movement on mask mandates remains to be seen. Abbott's tough public stance against mandatory mask-wearing may be enough to convince primary voters to give him a pass, said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist.

"In their mind, (Abbott and Paxton) have been fighting," Steinhauser said. "They have been carrying the banner so I don't think there will be a backlash on the Republican side by people who say 'you didn't do enough' or 'you didn't fight hard enough.'"

Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas Supreme Court says House Democrats can be arrested and brought to the Capitol

Texas House Democrats who refuse to show up to the state Capitol in their bid to prevent Republican lawmakers from passing a voting restrictions bill can be arrested and brought to the lower chamber, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The all-Republican court sided with Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan — and ordered a Travis County district judge to revoke his temporary restraining order blocking the civil arrest of Democratic lawmakers whose absences have denied the chamber the number of present members needed to move any legislation.

"The legal question before this Court concerns only whether the Texas Constitution gives the House of Representatives the authority to physically compel the attendance of absent members," Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote in the court's opinion. "We conclude that it does, and we therefore direct the district court to withdraw the TRO."

The state Supreme Court already has blocked court rulings in Travis and Harris counties to shield the quorum-busting Democrats from arrest — but Tuesday's ruling signified that it's legal under the state Constitution for House leaders to compel members to be physically present in the House, even if it means their arrest.

More than 50 House Democrats flew to Washington, D.C., in early July to block the Republican elections bill — a wide-ranging piece of legislation that, among other changes, would place restrictions on mail-in ballots and give partisan poll watchers greater access to polling sites.

Democrats and voting rights groups have slammed the bill as a way for the state's Republican leaders to disenfranchise marginalized voters. Republicans have cast the bill as necessary to improve "election integrity" and reform the state's voting system.

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