The seven big issues of the 2019 Texas Legislature
After years of lawsuits and a ruling in 2016 that found the state’s public school finance system barely constitutional, lawmakers have announced they will take an earnest look at the way public schools are funded.
The Texas Commission on Public School Finance took most of 2018 to examine school funding and released last month its recommended fixes, which included incentivizing districts to improve student outcomes, paying effective teachers higher salaries, eliminating unnecessary elements of the state funding formula and providing property tax relief.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office weighed heavily in the property tax relief part of the recommendations, offering up a plan that would cap the growth of property tax revenue school districts could collect at 2.5 percent a year. The plan would drop recapture payments, which property-wealthy districts must pay to the state to help support property-poor districts. It also would require the state to increase education funding. By 2023, the state would spend $3.8 billion more than it does now simply to maintain funding levels for school districts.
Conservative lawmakers have proposed using increases in general revenue, and oil and gas production taxes that otherwise would go into the rainy day fund to increase the state’s share of education funding.
Public education advocates fear that the focus on property tax relief will come at the expense of meaningfully overhauling and injecting new money into Texas classrooms.
Pledging to rein in property taxes has become a popular refrain at the GOP-controlled Capitol, but local government and school district officials say doing so cuts their ability to repair potholes and buy chalk, among thousands of other expenditures.
Classrooms, in a sense, are really at the center of the tug-of-war over property taxes.
With Texas cutting money to fund schools — a decade ago, the state provided 48.5 percent of education funding, compared to 38 percent this year, according to the Legislative Budget Board — districts have increasingly turned to local property tax revenue.
But some property owners have looked to their lawmakers to ease their annual tax bill pain.
Two years ago, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed a Senate plan that would have required cities, counties and school districts to win voter approval before increasing property taxes by more than 4 percent. (Currently, state law allows local governments to raise taxes 8 percent before they can be forced by petition to hold an election.) A Texas House plan would have required a vote on property tax hikes of more than 6 percent. The proposals died when the chambers couldn’t agree on a final figure.
Then, in 2018, Abbott proposed limiting annual growth to 2.5 percent — while also increasing state funding for schools. He hasn't offered suggestions on how to pay for the plan, saying he would leave such details to lawmakers.
With both chambers primed to pass property tax-related legislation, the question will be what figure they land on to cap property taxes — and whether they fork over more state tax revenue for schools.
The August 2017 hurricane displaced 32,000 people across the state, inundated and destroyed thousands of homes, and hobbled the appraisal values on which school districts and other entities depend so heavily for property taxes.
Paying for hurricane-related relief, including subsidies to school districts trying to pay staff even as their enrollment numbers continue to be depleted from the storm, appears to be palatable for fiscally hawkish lawmakers. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, has told constituents that entering the legislative session her “top three priorities are Harvey, Harvey and Harvey.”
But how much the Legislature spends — and where that money comes from — will have rippling consequences for the rest of the budget.
According to the latest available figures from the Legislative Budget Board, the state at minimum is likely to have to spend $860 million to cover increased aid from the Texas Education Agency and a host of other state agencies. But that number could be as much as $1.36 billion more — that’s the high end of how much the state education agency has estimated the school districts lost in property tax revenue.
Expect some skirmish over that discretionary spending, as lawmakers debate how and whether to subsidize school districts. The money could come from the rainy day fund, now estimated to contain $12.5 billion, or through general tax revenue.
Because the disaster was spread over a vast area, affecting many legislative districts, Harvey spending is likely to be a departure from past practice, which saw the state spend relatively few tax dollars on disasters.
A 2007 spending bill for hurricanes Rita and Katrina was almost $16 million. The rainy day fund, meanwhile, has been used just once for a natural disaster: A 2013 spending bill included $185 million to cover wildfire recovery costs.
Ten people, mostly students, were gunned down at Santa Fe High School on May 18, forcing school district officials statewide to reevaluate safety measures and state leaders to devise policies to prevent another tragedy from occurring.
Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, whose district includes Santa Fe High School, held a series of hearings and released recommendations on school safety and likely will propose the chamber's major school safety bill this session.
"School shootings anywhere are a tragedy, but for this to happen in my own community was personally devastating. I am committed to tackling the issue of violence in schools during the 86th legislative session," Taylor said.
Some school safety bills already filed would require every campus to have at least one counselor and kits to control bleeding; expand mental health services at schools; and waive license renewal fees for school marshals.
Another bill is aimed at expanding permission to carry guns on campuses for school marshals, school personnel trained and authorized to use a gun on campus.
Senate school safety recommendations include finding more money for the school marshal program. Abbott's recommendations, which also were released over the summer, call for doubling the number of marshals allowed per school and repealing the requirement that a marshal's firearm be locked in a safe.
Abbott's plan also includes increasing law enforcement presence on campuses; removing from classrooms students who threaten teachers; providing mental health evaluations of students and mental health first aid training for staff; expanding on-campus counseling; expanding monitoring of social media threats; and making modest adjustments to state gun laws.
The Senate plan made several suggestions for improving the physical security of schools, including finding more money for metal detectors, alarm systems, cameras and "hardened" entrances to make it more difficult for attackers to access a campus. The report also proposed finding ways to increase the number of counselors, school psychology specialists and social workers, particularly in rural districts, and expanding the use of telemedicine and telepsychiatry for mental health services.
Abortion opponents, motivated by a new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, promise to increase efforts to tighten regulations on the procedure, including laws that would effectively ban abortion in Texas.
Toward that end, a bill filed in November by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, would make it illegal for a doctor to perform an abortion in Texas except to save the woman's life or prevent serious injury.
Abortion opponents also plan to pursue a "heartbeat bill," similar to one passed in Iowa but blocked by a state judge last summer, that would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected at about the seventh week of pregnancy, before many women would know they are pregnant.
Under current Supreme Court precedent, a ban on abortion doctors and a heartbeat bill would be struck down as an unconstitutional limit on access to abortion.
But such a ruling could be appealed, creating a possible path to a Supreme Court that no longer includes Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote who tended to side with the court's liberal wing on abortion issues. Such a case could serve as a vehicle to strike down or limit Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a right to abortion.
Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, wants Texas to be prepared if Roe were overturned. He’s proposed a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit abortions in Texas if Roe were overturned, joining a half-dozen other states that have enacted similar "trigger bans.”
Another proposed bill, a priority for Texas Right to Life, would ban abortions based on abnormalities, sex or race of the fetus.
Additional legislation to curb abortion is expected before the March 8 bill-filing deadline.
The fight over the meaning of religious freedom, particularly in relation to same-sex marriage, is expected to return as a contentious theme in the 2019 session.
In 2017, conservative Republicans filed almost 20 bills to protect people from being forced to violate, either by government rules or threats of a lawsuit, a sincerely held religious belief.
One bill would have let wedding-related businesses decline to serve same-sex couples. Several sought to let county clerks opt out of providing marriage licenses to gay couples. Others would have barred cities and counties from applying anti-discrimination regulations to gay, lesbian and transgender Texans.
All of those bills died quietly in the House as Democrats and civil rights groups decried the effort as a quest for a government-issued license to discriminate, but proponents are ready to try again.
“We’ll continue to look for ways to promote and protect religious liberty in Texas,” said Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who expects to refile a 2017 bill that would have prohibited any “adverse government action” against those who believe gay marriage is wrong.
Most of last session’s “religious freedom” bills included an interesting co-author, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Arlington, who is expected to be voted in as speaker of the House, giving him significant power to influence the success or failure of legislation.
Krause, however, doesn’t think Bonnen’s past support will translate into future success for religion-based bills. Bonnen’s quest for speaker was supported by many House members because of his promise to let the chamber determine priorities, policy and the agenda, Krause said.
“I’m glad that he did sign on to those (bills), but I don’t necessarily know that means much one way or another,” he said.
Marijuana is expected to be a major topic of discussion at the Capitol, as cannabis proponents eye 2019 as the year for a breakthrough in terms of easing some of the state’s prohibitions.
Lawmakers approved a medical marijuana law in 2015 — called the Texas Compassionate Use Act — but it’s so restrictive and serves so few patients that Texas is routinely left off lists of the 33 states with medical marijuana programs.
That could change this year. Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, has filed legislation that would make medical cannabis available to many more people at greater potency than allowed under the state’s current statute.
“I think this is the time,” Menéndez said. “There are a lot of moving parts, but I am hearing support and I am hearing a softening of (anti-cannabis) language.”
Other cannabis-related bills that could gain traction include efforts to decriminalize small amounts of pot possession and enable Texas farmers to grow and market hemp — marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin — to the extent allowed by federal law.
Still, even cannabis activists view full marijuana legalization for any adult use as likely a bridge too far next year for the conservative-dominated Legislature.
Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, the state’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the group will spend the bulk of its efforts this session advocating for increased access to medical marijuana and for decriminalization of small amounts of pot possession.