Tarrant lawmakers head back to Austin Tuesday with a long to-do list.
They know money will be tight, as it is nearly every legislative session, which will make it challenging to do the only thing they actually have to do over the next 140 days — pass a balanced budget.
But many say they want to do so much more in the 86th Legislature.
“My top priority is to focus on finding real solutions to the issues that matter in the day-to-day lives” of constituents, said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.
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Overall, Fort Worth area lawmakers say the top two issues in the upcoming session are likely to be reducing property taxes and school finance.
Above and beyond that, they want to pass bills ranging from ensuring that sick children get the medical help they need to providing drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Finding ways to pay for everything on lawmakers’ wish lists will be the hard part, as the spotlight will shine on key money issues such as balancing the state budget and funding continuing costs from Hurricane Harvey.
“There’s always a fight about money,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. “But there’s always time for local issues. The truth is, local issues tend to be the most important issues.”
The session runs from Tuesday to May 27.
Here’s a look at some of what local lawmakers hope to accomplish over the next five months.
Property tax relief
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last year made property tax reform a key piece of his re-election bid, saying he wants to limit the amount school districts can generate in property taxes each year and have the state make up the difference.
Texas historically has paid the bulk of public school funding. But through the years, the percentage the state pays has dropped to about one third of the overall bill, which shifts the funding burden to property owners.
Ways to lower property tax collections and still fund schools are being proposed.
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has filed House Bill 322 to limit property taxes on the homesteads of Texans who are at least 65 or disabled and their spouses. He also wants to let counties increase their sales tax by 1 percent, if officials and voters agree, to boost revenue with the hope of shrinking dependence on property taxes.
“I hope the Legislature can pass legislation that will actually lead to a lower tax bill for homeowners,” Geren said.
State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said this is the top issue with many in his district and across the state.
“I think that if the Legislature finds a way to adequately increase the state’s funding contribution to public education, the incentives for local governments to insist on raising property taxes to cover that cost disappears,” he said.
Some lawmakers have long argued that the state’s school finance system needs to be revamped.
“The needs haven’t changed — they’ve just been ignored for far too long,” said Turner, who heads the House Democratic Caucus. “The first thing we must do is fix our broken school finance system to make it more equitable and provide needed funding to districts and classrooms in our community and across the state.”
Geren is among those proposing ways to move the issue forward.
Hoping to reduce the state’s dependence on property tax money, he filed House Joint Resolution 24 that calls for the state to cover at least 50 percent of the cost of running public schools.
State Sen.-elect Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, said she is ready to help find the best way to boost public education funding.
“It’s time for a serious conversation about meaningful school finance reform that will reduce the burden on local property taxpayers and increase the state’s share of school finance,” she said. “I am encouraged by the ongoing conversations I’ve had since election day regarding the need to invest in public schools.”
Balancing the budget
The budget in Texas is already predicted to be tight.
But state Sen. Jane Nelson said she’s ready for the challenge.
“My top goal is to pass a solid budget that makes smart investments in our future,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and dean of the Tarrant County delegation. “After paying Hurricane Harvey bills, we will still have the opportunity to increase education funding, improve transportation and make communities safer.
“We will care for our seniors, children and other vulnerable Texans, and I am personally committed to supporting survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human tracking.”
State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said there are a number of challenges to balancing the next state budget.
“I’m committed to prioritizing key needs like property tax reform, school finance improvements and long-term Hurricane Harvey relief while working to maintain a fiscally responsible budget,” he said.
Other Tarrant priorities
School safety: Nelson said a top priority will be school safety. That, she said, “starts with expanding mental health resources in Texas.” She has filed a bill to help doctors identify youth “who are struggling with mental health challenges and get them into treatment.”
Helping medically fragile children: “There are certain access to care issues and structural problems that are keeping these terrific kids and their parents from receiving the treatment they need,” state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said. “These are kids that need 24-hour help just to live. The last thing they and their parents should have to deal with is a complicated bureaucracy that keeps them from getting the care they desperately need. Our office is working on a package of bills to bring relief to these kids and families.”
Medical issues: State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, said he wants to pass bills requiring an FBI background check for all nurses aides, preventing health insurance companies from refusing payment to providers for services that “were pre-authorized and delivered” and addressing a “lack of due process” for doctors appearing before the Texas Medical Board.
Immigrant agenda: State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said he is “setting out an unapologetically pro-immigrant agenda to assure those who want to work and contribute to our economy that this is the place for them.” Romero has filed bills to give driver permits to undocumented immigrants and to make sure general contractors are properly identifying their employees and paying them fair wages on public projects. “In the coming months, we will be filing more pro-immigrant legislation and will be on guard against anything to the contrary,” he said. “While this might not be the session to pass these measures, you only have to look back at this last election cycle to know there is a change in the wind.”
Public education: Powell said she hopes to work on education issues such as teacher pay, standardized testing reform and pre-kindergarten expansion. Turner, meanwhile, said it’s time for lawmakers to work to reduce the cost of teachers’ health care, pay teachers more and provide funding to make schools as safe as they can be for students, teachers and all who work there
Boosting homeowner rights: Krause said his office is working on a proposal to boost homeowner rights when they protest their property tax bills. “In too many cases, the burden is on the taxpayer to explain why they should not have to pay that much in taxes,” he said. “Instead, the burden should be on the government to justify why they should assess your property at such a high amount.”
Domestic violence: Nelson filed a bill to make it easier for domestic violence victims break a lease in order to move out of an unsafe environment. “Ending the cycle of domestic violence begins with giving victims the resources they need to get out of harm’s way and start over,” she said. And Romero filed bills to reduce domestic violence in the home. “If this legislation passes, there will be a criminal penalty enhancement for domestic violence in the presence of a child,” he said. “Children who witness domestic violence are unquestionably harmed, even if they are not the direct recipient of these heinous acts.”