Northeast Texas lawmakers lauded the 140-day session that ended Monday for sticking to its top three goals: a balanced, two-year budget; school finance reform; and property tax relief.
The last issue was a partial success, as the 86th Legislature gave local school board 5 billion reasons to carry property tax relief over the goal line.
“People are going to see a (property tax) reduction,” state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, said after describing a $5 billion infusion into the 2020-21 state budget that will restore the state’s share of school funding to about half.
It wasn’t the dramatic property tax reduction Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen had envisioned — and tried to salvage with an unsuccessful proposal to raise the state sales tax by a penny.
“Is (the reduction) going to be meaningful and huge?” Dean asked. “I don’t think so. We’ve got to do a thorough job of finding how to equitably do that. We’ve got to find the monies to properly provide meaningful tax relief that’s sustaining.”
Dean can chalk up successes in a couple of bills, one requiring opioid distributors to include information on how to dispose of unused prescriptions.
“We found that 70 percent of people that became addicted to opioids don’t actually have a prescription, and they get them out of other people’s medicine cabinets,” he said.
Dean also stepped aside from his bill authorizing the Upshur County Commissioners Court to regulate gaming rooms, when another bill arose to make that a statewide authorization.
He said interim committees are likely to form before the 2021 session, adding he is keen to continue hunting the elusive, significant property tax relief trophy.
“The big emphasis has to be on this whole property tax relief concern,” Dean said. “We just ran out of money to really reduce it to where people would see what I always call meaningful property tax relief.”
If the 86th legislative session gets a C or a B-minus on property tax relief, it was demonstrably more successful with the other two goals the top three Republicans laid out for the GOP-dominated House and Senate.
“We checked all three of those boxes, along with a lot of good stuff along the way as far as taking care of retired teachers,” state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said Wednesday.
Paddie noted that legislators in Austin have taken various swings at school finance reform over the decades.
“It was such a huge thing to tackle,” he said. “And we did it.”
The Texas Supreme Court all but called the state’s method of funding its schools unconstitutional in the summer of 2016, stopping short of ordering the 2017 session to fix it, but digging a spur into the side of that Legislature.
“We did school finance for the first time without the Texas Supreme Court,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches. “We did the job that had to be done, not because the courts told us we had to.”
Clardy, Dean, Paddie and state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, each said they will be on the 2020 ballot to return for the 87th Legislature in 2021. To that end, some plan to work on legislation that was a near-miss this session, and one will be doing a lot of traveling.
Paddie is a member of the House Redistricting Committee that will redraw congressional House and Senate and State Board of Education boundaries in 2021. Texas could earn as many as four new congressional seats in Washington, based on census trends.
“We’re scheduled to hold 17 public hearings around the state (during the interim),” Paddie said. “As the only member from East Texas, I feel it’s very important to make sure that East Texas is protected.”
Hughes is vice chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, which holds the place for the Senate Redistricting Committee that does not exist in nonredistricting sessions. That could put him also in public hearings to get ready to redraw political boundaries.
He’ll also be working on election security, after a disappointing demise for his Senate Bill 9. Crafted from the work of a select Senate committee Hughes chaired in the lead-up to the 2019 session, the measure’s hallmark was a requirement that electronic voting machines leave a paper trail, an element Hughes nearly salvaged when he convinced Democrats on the House Elections Committee to add it to another bill.
That sent that bill to the House Calendars Committee, but it was prevented from seeing debate on the House floor, killing the bill and the paper trail amendment.
Other requirements in SB 9 such as enhanced penalties for misuse of mail ballots, an element rooted in the 2018 Democratic primary in Gregg County’s Pct. 4, already had fallen victim to the House ax.
“The elections reform bill did very well in the Senate but sadly none of this passed in the House,” Hughes said.
Hughes differed slightly with the C or B-minus grade on property tax relief, but only slightly.
“I think that’s fair,” he said. “I would make it a B or B-minus. ... Someone with a $250,000 house, and that’s a pretty nice house, is going to see a couple hundred dollars’ in relief and more as this goes forward. So, that’s significant.”
Hughes was pleased that the focus on the three top measures that started the session did not waver.
“We did something that’s not normal,” said Hughes, who was a seven-term House member before joining the upper chamber. “It was encouraging to see that happen.”
Hughes passed some bills, including one allowing people to recover damages if a court determines a state agency is pursuing them with “frivolous action.”
He said his SB 1978, which made headlines as the Chick-fil-A act but was known to backers as a religious freedom act, was broader than the instance from which it arose — to reverse San Antonio’s ban of Chick-fil-A from its municipal airport. The city disapproved of the eatery’s religion-based opposition to LGBTQ rights.
“The neat thing about it is it protects all religions,” he said of the bill, which went to Abbott’s desk on Saturday and awaits his signature.
Hughes said he’ll bring back his SB 2373 next session.
That bill sought to tamp down on bias on social media platforms, but it was defeated by lobbyists for Facebook and other platforms that argued it infringed on their First Amendment rights. The senator said privately owned platforms do have a right to freedom of speech — they just have an obligation to publicly disclose bias.
“The bill just says, if you’re a social media platform and you publicly profess, ‘We’re an open platform and we don’t discriminate based on politics,’ you’ve got to do that,” he said. “It’s an angle that hasn’t been tried before. I’m disappointed that bill didn’t work, but we’ll be back.”