Texas Politics

With a month to go, Texas Legislature races to pass bills

Only a half-dozen bills had been sent to Gov. Greg Abbott as of late last week, meaning the 84th Legislature will do most of the heavy lifting during crunchtime before lawmakers go home June 1.
Only a half-dozen bills had been sent to Gov. Greg Abbott as of late last week, meaning the 84th Legislature will do most of the heavy lifting during crunchtime before lawmakers go home June 1. The Monitor

Texas lawmakers are entering the final month of a 140-day session marked by tension between the House and Senate as they struggle to find accord on billions of dollars in tax relief and shape a budget to run the state for the next two years.

After 31/2 months, only a half-dozen bills had been sent to Gov. Greg Abbott as of late last week, meaning that the 84th Legislature will do most of the heavy lifting during crunchtime before lawmakers go home June 1.

They appear close to final agreement on one showcase item — allowing Texans to openly carry handguns — but scores of other challenges remain as they deal with issues such as school choice, ethics, fracking regulation, and proposed bans on red-light cameras and texting while driving. The consensus seems to be that a special session can be avoided.

Abbott, who defeated former state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth in November to become the 48th governor, has used his inaugural legislative session to push an ambitious agenda that includes early childhood education, border security, transportation and ethics reform.

Nearly a dozen Abbott-backed bills have cleared either the House or the Senate, according to the governor’s office, though none have received final passage.

“We are pleased with where our proposals are at this point, and we are working very closely with both the House and Senate to ensure that this legislation reaches the governor’s desk to be signed into law,” said Amelia Chasse, Abbott’s press secretary.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Tea Party-backed former state senator, is also making his debut as the Senate’s presiding officer in what has been a strained relationship with House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate often at odds with Tea Party House members.

House and Senate members traded accusations that one chamber was ignoring the other’s bills until Patrick and Straus tried to reduce tensions by expediting action on measures from the other side of the Capitol.

“The tension between the two presiding officers is palpable,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the online political newsletter The Quorum Report. “So far, it is ships passing in the night.”

Some experts say Abbott may need to play an increasingly visible role in the weeks ahead to help break deadlocks on crucial legislation. Much of the work will play out in joint conference committees responsible for resolving differences in bills passed by the two chambers.

Here’s a closer look at what’s in store:

Tax relief

The final weeks of the session will be dominated by a House-Senate showdown over how to deliver billions of dollars in tax relief that Abbott and legislative leaders promised after stronger-than-expected revenue estimates projected a $7.5 billion surplus.

In calling for tax cuts exceeding $4.4 billion, both chambers are on board with Abbott’s demand for a cut in the business tax, also known as the franchise tax or the margins tax. But they have conflicting ideas for individual tax cuts. The Senate seeks to lessen the burden of school property taxes by raising the homestead exemption, while the House calls for cuts in sales taxes.

The dispute will play out before House-Senate negotiators and could be the final cliffhanger issue to be resolved before lawmakers depart. Abbott says he will veto any budget that doesn’t cut franchise taxes but is not taking sides in the confrontation over how to provide individual tax relief.

The proposed sales tax cut passed by the House last week would total $2.3 billion, and the proposed property tax relief measure passed by the Senate and championed by Patrick would amount to $2.1 billion. Both chambers propose a similar amount — $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion — in business tax breaks.

Gun rights

Gun-rights advocates appear within reach of a breakthrough on a hotly debated measure that would let licensed Texans openly carry handguns for the first time in more than 125 years.

The open-carry bill is widely expected to win final approval as one of the landmark measures of the session after negotiators address differences in bills that have cleared the House and Senate. Abbott has promised to sign the measure.

One haggling point — though not believed to be a deal-breaker — centers on a House amendment tacked on by gun-rights activists who believe that no license should be required. The amendment would bar police from asking a gun owner for a license.

A measure allowing concealed weapons inside college buildings has passed the Senate. A House version of “campus carry” has won committee approval but has not advanced to the floor.

State budget

Funding state government for the next two years is the one obligation that lawmakers must meet. A 10-member conference committee co-chaired by Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, will try to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of a spending plan for the 2016-17 fiscal biennium, which starts Sept 1.

The five House members and five senators must agree on big-ticket items such as education, transportation, Medicaid and other services as they try to settle $1.6 billion in spending differences and forge a compromise budget for final approval by the full Legislature.

The Senate calls for a $211.4 billion budget, a 4.6 percent increase over current spending. House members approved a $209.8 billion budget, a 3.8 percent increase. But unlike the Senate, they have earmarked money for tax relief in legislation separate from the budget.

Border security

Republican leaders’ call for tougher security at the border — which they say is desperately needed to compensate for inept federal enforcement — seems likely to produce an ambitious package topping a half-billion dollars. The Senate is calling for $811 million, more than the previous seven years combined, while the House is committing $565 million.

Both plans expand the presence of border-based Texas Department of Public Safety officers and toughen penalties for human smuggling. The Senate’s bill, by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would keep National Guard troops on the border until DPS staffing reaches full strength.

Other aspects of immigration policy have provoked emotional debate. Throngs of young Hispanics, many wearing caps and gowns, trooped to the Capitol to denounce attempts to repeal a law that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Experts say the proposed repeal may run aground in the final weeks.

Fracking bans

Denton’s fracking ban, approved by the city’s voters in November, has generated push-back in the Legislature, where a measure is advancing to prohibit cities from regulating hydraulic drilling.

A House-passed bill by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, has drawn support from the oil and gas industry but opposition from environmentalists. It seeks to block cities from cracking down on fracking by asserting that only the state can regulate oil and gas. The bill breezed to Senate committee approval Thursday.

Opponents of the measure hope that recent studies tying injection wells to earthquakes in North Texas could slow the bill’s momentum.

Denton voters drew national attention by approving the ban after anti-fracking advocates raised concerns about health, declining property values, noise pollution and other issues. Darby has agreed to permit regulation of surface activities such as traffic, lights and drilling setbacks, prompting the Texas Municipal League to withdraw its opposition to the bill and shift to a neutral position.

Transportation

With the state’s top three leaders pledging to rescue motorists from clogged highways, legislators seem certain to pump out billions of additional dollars to help eradicate a $5-billion-a-year shortfall in road construction.

Abbott, who has used a wheelchair for more than 30 years, has declared transportation one of his emergency issues, telling lawmakers that “it’s a sad day in Texas when a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on our congested roads.”

Lawmakers appear on track to send voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would inject the transportation system with up to $3 billion, although the House and Senate are divided over whether to draw the money from sales taxes or the motor vehicle sales tax.

The proposal would follow a constitutional amendment that voters approved in November that provided an initial $1.7 billion from oil and gas revenue. An additional $1.3 billion is expected to flow into transportation coffers by stopping the diversion of highway money to other parts of the budget.

Education

The House has approved Abbott-backed legislation to bolster pre-kindergarten, but it awaits action in the Senate amid Tea Party criticism that the initiative constitutes an expansion of government. A citizen advisory group created by Patrick denounced the plan as “socialistic.”

A plan unveiled by House Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, seeks to overhaul the school finance system, deemed unconstitutional by an Austin district judge, with $3 billion to help eradicate inequities between rich and poor districts.

One education controversy centers on a Senate-passed voucher-style plan that would set aside business tax credits for school scholarships to enable lower-income students to transfer to private or religious schools. Supporters say it would give students and parents a choice, but opponents say it would erode the quality of public schools.

Ethics

With Abbott calling on lawmakers to “dedicate this session to ethics,” legislation to toughen disclosure requirements and increase transparency appears to be gathering momentum.

The Senate passed a beefed-up bill last week that would require candidates for elective office to take drug tests, would stiffen reporting requirements for lobbyists and would require departing lawmakers to wait two years before becoming lobbyists.

The Republican-led Legislature seems virtually certain to strip the traditionally Democratic Travis County district attorney’s office of its power to prosecute state corruption cases. Republicans remain critical of an abuse-of-power indictment issued by a Travis County grand jury against former Gov. Rick Perry.

Under a bill by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, errant state officials would be investigated by the Texas Rangers and would be subject to prosecution by their hometown district attorneys.

Also bound for approval is a package of contracting reforms that took shape after millions of dollars in questionable contracts involving the Health and Human Services Commission were disclosed.

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