Five things to watch in the Texas Legislature in 2019
When we last left Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a force of nature in Texas politics, he was lobbing rhetorical bombs at the Texas House for walking “off the job” and leaving property tax reforms and bathroom privacy bills unfinished in 2017.
Now 16 months later, it’s those two issues that drive conversations about how the next legislative session that begins on Tuesday will play out. While Patrick has all but guaranteed the Legislature will again tackle property tax reform, more uncertain is whether the bathroom bill or another red-meat social policy issue will emerge to overwhelm the agenda as it did in 2017 when protesters regularly packed the Legislature’s chambers and created a nationwide spectacle.
Making matters even less predictable than usual is the fact that, for the first time in a decade, there will be a new Speaker of the House. While State Rep. Dennis Bonnen is a new speaker, he’s no rookie. The Angleton Republican has been in the Legislature since winning his first race in 1996 — making him one of the most experienced Republican legislators in either the House or Senate. Already other lawmakers are predicting Bonnen and Patrick will mesh better than soon-to-be former House Speaker Joe Straus and Patrick ever did.
While it’s never easy to predict the unpredictable 140-day legislative sessions, here’s what to watch for as the 86th Texas Legislative Session gavels in.
THE NEXT BATHROOM BILL?
Few issues overran the Legislature’s agenda in 2017 like the battle over the so-called bathroom bill. But don’t expect a repeat as House and Senate leaders sound less anxious about a sequel.
In fact, even Patrick seems ready to move on from a topic that absorbed hundreds of hours of the Legislature’s time, provoked a parade of protests and counter-protests and added to the acrimony between the House and Senate. The bill would have required people, even if they are transgender, to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender listed on their birth certificates.
Although the bill never passed due to opposition in the House and from many in the business community, Patrick has said he considers the issue “settled” and the sponsor of the bill in the Texas House, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, lost his re-election.
There may still be other hot-button religious freedom issues that arise or the typical bills to further restrict access to abortion in Texas, but in general, Republicans say after the 2018 elections, there is a concerted effort to focus less on divisive issues and more on topics like taxes and schools.
“There’s going to be a real emphasis on bread-and-butter issues,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who leads the GOP caucus in the Senate.
PROPERTY TAX RELIEF
Already the upcoming session is defined by the failures of the past. For more than 20 years, Texas politicians have promised to cut property taxes or at least slow the growth of them. But taxes have mostly gone one direction since the year 2000: up.
More recently, the House, the Senate and the Governor have all made clear they want property tax reform. But what that means depends on whom you ask.
While the Senate has aimed to cap the amount local cities and counties can raise property taxes before triggering an election in the future, the House has prioritized reforms that will give taxpayers more information about who is raising their rates and how to fight it. Now, Gov. Greg Abbott has inserted an entirely different element by calling for capping school district tax increases but with a lot less detail on how he’d pay for the plan while avoiding dramatic cuts in school funding.
Patrick has left little doubt he’s ready to fight “until hell freezes over” to get a 4 percent limit on the annual tax increases imposed by most cities, counties and special districts. Currently, that state allows local governments to go to 8 percent before the public, in theory, could petition for a rollback election — something that has never happened in Texas. Patrick wants an automatic election every time local governments raise property taxes by 4 percent or more.
While that wouldn’t cut a single Texan’s tax bill, it would theoretically slow future growth by local governments.
Months ago, Patrick told members of the conservative Empower Texans that the issue is so important to him that he’s already hinting at an overtime special session to get it resolved, if needed.
“I’m not making any plans to be on vacation next summer,” Patrick said alluding to the likelihood of a special session if his reform plans crumble again.
SCHOOL FINANCE REFORM
While Bonnen will replace Straus as the leader in the House, he already made clear he will be as aggressive as Straus was in fighting to reform the school finance system.
On the day he announced he’d have the votes to become the new speakerm Bonnen made clear his top priority in 2019.
“I can guarantee you that priority is school finance,” Bonnen said. “It is time Texas took on the challenge of fixing our broken school finance system.”
This is far from the Legislature’s first push to reform the convoluted system. Lawmakers tried to fix the system after the state Supreme Court declared the current system effectively broken, though not in a way that violates the Texas Constitution.
Bettencourt said with the new leadership in the House, he feels more confident there will be less acrimony to help tackle the issue constructively.
“There’ll be typical frictions between the House and the Senate still, but not a standoff like it was the last time,” he said.
This will be the first legislative session since Hurricane Harvey hit and it will loom over the session from Day 1. The record storm destroyed or damaged more than 178,000 homes and total damages are expected to reach $125 billion, according to some experts.
For the Legislature, the first order of business in the session will be dealing with the costs of the storm to state and local governments, and passing supplemental budgets to cover some of the up to $2 billion just in state impacts. A big piece of the Legislature’s mission will be helping to reimburse schools for their hurricane-related costs, which range from $426 million to $1.3 billion according to a report from the State Senate.
A big financial blow will be dealing with the lost property tax collections in dozens of school districts where storm-damaged homes and businesses are now worth less. The state is not required to cover all those costs, but key members of the Legislature like State Sen. Jane Nelson, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, have made clear they feel a responsibility to make sure schools are not left cutting teachers because of Harvey.
“I think you are going to see a very sympathetic Legislature to the needs of those students in the districts that have been affected,” Nelson said during a committee meeting last year.
SCHOOL SAFETY REVIEW
The 2019 session will also be the first since the mass shootings in a church in Sutherland Springs and at Sante Fe High. Patrick and Bonnen have made clear the Legislature will take up safety and security issues.
While the tragedies have provoked some to call for more gun control, that doesn’t seem likely in a heavily pro-NRA Legislature. Instead, Patrick told a gathering of Republicans in San Antonio last summer that the focus will be on arming teachers in schools and limiting school entrances.
“We will do everything we can to secure our schools,” Patrick said.