Texas Politics

Tarrant lawmakers prepare for Texas Legislature — big needs, tight budget

Tarrant County lawmakers head back to Austin on Tuesday with a long wish list.

They know money will be tight, largely because of slumping oil and gas revenues, and the focus of many lawmakers will be on issues including Child Protective Services, how public schools are funded and the state’s property tax system.

But they also have other issues — guns, ethics reform, car seat laws, the state’s emergency leave policy and more — during the upcoming legislative session that will last for 140 days and wrap up May 29.

“They’ll find time to debate those issues thoroughly,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. “Local issues will be vetted and debated.

“But this session is going to be about money because … we have less of it,” he said. “I think they’ll make [some financial reforms], but it won’t be large because of the budget crunch.”

Even though the focus will be on crafting a balanced budget that addresses as many of the state’s needs as possible, lawmakers are expected to spend plenty of time on social issues, such as a proposed restroom law that has already drawn statewide attention.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already made the so-called bathroom bill, now known as the “Texas Privacy Act,” one of his top 10 priorities. The measure would prevent transgender Texans from using the restrooms of their choice. Critics call this the anti-transgender bill.

“This issue is not about discrimination — it’s about public safety, protecting businesses and common sense,” he said.

House Speaker Joe Straus has said this topic “isn’t the most urgent concern.” And Gov. Greg Abbott has said he thinks “we are in a situation where there are more unknowns than there are knowns.”

But it’s an issue that could easily dominate prime legislative time during the 85th Legislature.

“This is a budget session with some explosive emotional issues thrown in,” Miller said.

Senate issues

In the upper chamber, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, will be focused on the state budget.

“I hope to pass a conservative budget that meets the growing needs of our state with a strong focus on addressing the crisis at CPS, improving transportation and maintaining our commitment to education,” said Nelson, the dean of the Tarrant County delegation and chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

She realizes that challenges lie ahead with many needs and not enough dollars to address them all.

“It will be a tight budget, but I am confident we will address our needs,” she said, adding that she’s filed other bills that touch on issues ranging from continuing to phase out the franchise tax to making sure that communities can create child safety zones to keep sex offenders from living around schools or places where children play.

State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, serves with Nelson on the Finance Committee and agrees that a conservative budget is the top priority.

To help with that both now and in the future, he’s proposing a measure to tighten the state spending cap formula to prevent “sky-high government spending,” but adjusting for inflation and population growth.

But property tax reform is also at the top of the to-do list, he said.

“There’s a disconnect between constantly increasing local property taxes and household incomes,” said Hancock, a joint author of Senate Bill 2, a property tax reform plan. “Taxpayers need and deserve relief.”

Among the bill’s provisions is halving the proportion a tax rate may rise before triggering a rollback election. It now takes an increase of more than 8 percent in the tax rate before taxpayers can call for a vote. This proposal cuts that to 4 percent. It also sets consistent dates on property tax protest deadlines and requires that any tax ratification elections be held on general election dates to increase voter turnout.

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, has a number of items on her to-do list, including criminal justice reforms, ending state corporate welfare programs, reforming property taxes and advocating on behalf of local and statewide individual taxpayers.

Bills she has filed address some controversial issues including banning taxpayer-funded lobbyists by local governments, ensuring that parents can access all school information about their children and making sure that bond voters are fully informed.

And state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said his top priority is good government — “a limited government operating within the confines of its constitutional authority and empowering the individual to go out and succeed of their own accord.”

One of his focuses this year will be asking the state to join a call to convene a convention of states and reduce the power of the federal government. Other priorities include addressing border security, excess state property management, ethics reform and religious liberty.

In the House

Many local House members list CPS reform, revamping the public school funding system and improving the property tax system as among the state’s top priorities this session.

Here’s a look at other key measures for them.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, wants to address ethics reform again, since the last major plan to boost government transparency died in 2015. Instead of loading up one bill with many proposed reforms, he said the goal this year is to file bills separately addressing each issue, such as requiring nonprofits to reveal their financial supporters. He and Nelson are also working to address concerns about the state’s emergency leave policy, since news reports showed that directors at some agencies improperly used the policy.

“It shouldn’t be used when you let people go to give out a bonus,” he said. “We need to take a closer look at it and get a clearly defined policy that determines what you can do with it.”

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said her top goals are jobs, healthcare and consumer protection. That’s why she said she has filed bills “banning credit checks on employment applications in certain industries, requiring electronic recording of non-custodial police interviews, limiting the collection of ‘zombie debt,’ providing earned paid sick leave for business with 50 or more employees, and disclosure of out of network healthcare providers before consenting to treatment.”

State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, plans to continue working to deregulate “unnecessary and burdensome” occupational licensing requirements. “I am in no hurry to file legislation introducing more law; I am more interested in getting laws that make no sense off the books,” he said. That’s why he has filed a bill to deregulate the shampoo apprentice license. He has also has filed one to increase the taxable exemption of privately owned mineral rights from $500 to $2,000.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said mental health needs top his to-do list, such as addressing a shortage of providers and providing help for law enforcers who often deal with the issue. But “overall, my top priority is to focus on the issues that really matter in the day-to-day lives of my constituents: funding for schools, accessing healthcare, protecting children and feeling safe in our communities,” he said. He has filed bills to update Texas child car seat laws, to require children to stay in rear-facing car seats until at least age 2, as well as measures to ban texting while driving while there is a minor in a vehicle, clarify the state’s emergency leave law and boost transparency in state government.

Gun bills

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said his top priority this year is passing “constitutional carry,” which would let Texans openly carry handguns with or without a license. “I am its biggest advocate,” he said. “No more paying fees to exercise our Second Amendment rights!” He has also filed a bill to stop in-state tuition for those illegally in the country. He also said anti-abortion bills, school choice and banning sanctuary cities are key.

State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said mental health access, bringing jobs back into blighted areas and worker safety also top his priority list. He has refiled some bills that died last session addressing issues such as voter applications and has added a new worker protection bill as well. “We plan on filing several more bills in the coming weeks as we receive drafts and feedback from stakeholders,” he said.

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, said anti-abortion measures, securing the power grid for Texas, stopping entitlement fraud, making sure American law is used in American courts, ending sanctuary cities and providing tax relief for homeowners are among his priorities. That, plus “getting as much conservative legislation passed because we have a super majority Republican-held Texas House.”

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said his top priorities include criminal justice reform, transportation, religious liberty and preparedness. He has filed bills addressing the enforcement of federal firearm regulations by state and local law enforcers and dealing with the intrastate manufacture of a firearm “to help the state once again assert its jurisdiction in important matters.”

State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said her top priorities are CPS reform and “improving access to care on the healthcare front.” “The state has to prepare for the changes to healthcare that will be happening at the federal level over the next two years,” she said.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, recently talked about his plan to work with state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on a bill — in light of recent court rulings that impacted the Texas Public Information Act — to close loopholes and make sure the public can learn how state and local governments in Texas spend taxpayer money.

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Texas Legislature

The 85th session of the Texas Legislature will run for 140 days.

Tuesday: Session begins

March 10: Deadline for filing bills and joint resolutions other than local bills and emergency measures

May 29: Last day of the session

June 18: The last day the governor may sign or veto bills passed during the regular session

Aug. 28: Date that bills without specific effective dates become law

Source: Legislative Reference Library of Texas