Seeing government in action is an eye-opening experience, especially in Austin.
Last week, I received a call from the Texas Press Association asking if I would come to the state capitol and testify against a bill in the current Special Session.
Opinion by Melissa Perner, Ozona Stockman
I immediately felt this sense of donning my super hero cap and racing into action to save the day. Of course I would go testify, save public notices in newspapers and fight for truth, justice and the American way. As I raced to the state capitol early Saturday morning, in my trusty Jeep Wrangler, I went over the issue in my head, preparing for any questions, or arguments, that may come my way.
I was confident, I was cool and I was sure we could win this battle.
I had no idea what I was about to observe.
The bill that I was testifying against was Senate Bill 1, dealing with property tax reform. A big issue in Texas right now.
As I entered the room where the first-ever Senate Select Committee on Government Reform hearing was going to be held, I saw the chairman of the committee, State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a man who I quickly learned believes everything in this bill he authored is absolutely correct and if you disagree you are absolutely wrong.
The bill would lower the rate at which cities or counties would have to hold an election to authorize property tax increases. The current rate increase that would set off an election — called a “rollback rate” — is 8 percent. The bill would lower it to 4 percent and call for an automatic election to approve the tax increase if the rollback rate was exceeded.
Those in favor of the bill said it would provide relief for homeowners who are struggling to keep up with increasing property taxes.
Those opposing the bill said it would negatively affect cities’ and counties’ ability to provide services like police, fire rescue and health care.
For my part, I was there to testify on the increase in transparency the bill was promising. In three sections, the bill states that notices from local taxing entities, such as the city or county, would only be required to be posted online and not in the local newspaper. That means if a taxpayer doesn’t check the county or city’s website, they would never know about tax hearings or a changes in tax rates until they received their tax bill.
I was there to convince this committee that not every county has a website, including Crockett County, and that the requirement for newspaper notice was needed. We needed more transparency.
To testify before a committee, you must fill out a card with your name and information outside the hearing room. From there, you sit in the hearing and wait for your name to be called. Here’s the catch, you don’t know when you will be called up and there is no bathroom break. I emphasize this last part because I arrived at the capitol at 10 a.m. and did not testify until around 3:30 p.m.
It was a long day.
The senators on the committee, however, could take breaks anytime they want. At one point, people were testifying to only two senators on the committee.
My colleagues sitting next to me said it was quite common. They said senators and representatives often have other committee meetings going on at the same time, or they have other commitments.
I found that frustrating considering a lot of people, including myself, had traveled a long way to speak our two minutes we were allowed.
As questions about the newspaper notice came up, Bettencourt kept saying that it was in the bill.
The bill stated a taxing entity could publish the notice in the newspaper or just post it on the taxing entity’s website.
See, I was there to convince these people to change the “or” to an “and” to make the newspaper notice a requirement.
As I kept sitting there, I quickly realized there was no reasoning with this group. Anyone that questioned the numbers used in the bill, the wording of the bill or just the whole bill, was quickly shot down.
When my turn finally came up, my super hero feeling had dwindled to “hurry up and get this done.”
I gave my statement. Told them our county didn’t have a website, that the newspaper notice was needed and asked them to consider changing it.
Bettencourt looked me in the face and said that was already in the bill.
I politely looked at him, and the rest of the senators, thanked them and walked off. I thought that was it. I thought our battle had been lost.
Tuesday morning, I received word that an amendment, proposed by Bettencourt, had been presented with the bill Monday afternoon on the senate floor. The bill, with our amendment, passed the senate.
Victory! I guess they really did listen to what I had said.
Watching government in action is frustrating. By the end of the day, I just wanted to go to the restroom, finally, get something to eat and go to bed.
While eating dinner, I looked around and noticed all the people in the restaurant. Probably all of them had no idea that just down the road a group of men and women were working on legislation that could possibly impact their lives and their homeownership.
More transparency is needed. More involvement is needed.
Yes, good things do happen in government and good laws do get passed, but it isn’t as glamorous or impressive as you may think. It’s a process, a frustrating one at times, but it is one that people need to be involved with. If you are involved then you might get some good results.
I am proud to live in a state and a country where we can question and disagree our elected officials. I am proud that I testified Saturday, and I would do it again.
Melissa Perner is editor and publisher of the Ozona Stockman. Her column published June 26 is reprinted with permission.