5.5.23 – Texas Tribune
The list of potential hurdles includes property tax cuts, school choice, the power grid, the state budget, plus diversity and tenure in higher education.
The end of the legislative session is little more than three weeks away and some of the most pressing issues are still unresolved.
Bills to control the state’s rising property taxes and allow parents to use public dollars to send their kids to private schools are still in limbo as the House and Senate sort out their priorities for the remainder of the session.
The budget, the only bill the Legislature is legally required to pass during the 140-day session, is also yet to be finalized.
Bill-killing deadlines are rapidly approaching, adding to the pressure. House committees have until Monday to advance House bills, while Thursday is the last day for the full House to initially approve its bills. And keep an eye on May 20, the deadline for House committees to pass Senate bills, a critical juncture given how Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority bills have been piling up in the House.
Patrick has accused the House of moving too slowly this session, predicting an oncoming “train wreck” of piled-up legislation. And he has suggested that he may force a special session if he does not get his way on two of his priorities: property tax relief and power-grid reforms.
With long days ahead and only four weekends before the session adjourns for the summer, here are some of the biggest unresolved issues to follow before the final gavel falls on Memorial Day.
Controlling the rising costs of property taxes is a priority for the state’s Big Three officials: Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan. During his reelection campaign last fall, Abbott promised to deliver the biggest tax cut in the state’s history.
Patrick, who leads the Senate, and Phelan, who presides over the House, agree on the goal. But their chambers have taken vastly different approaches.
In the Senate, Houston Republican Paul Bettencourt has pushed for increasing the state’s homestead exemption from its current $40,000 to $75,000, with an additional $20,000 exemption for homeowners 65 and older. Bettencourt is also pushing for $5.38 billion in additional funds to go toward buying down school district taxes, which are a major portion of property taxes.
The House plan, authored by Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, tackles the issue by limiting appraisal growth to 5% per year and lowering school district taxes by 28% through a $4.5 billion infusion into the public school system.
Each chamber has been hostile toward the other’s plan, with Patrick calling the House proposal “bad math” and Phelan saying House passage of the appraisal cap plan should “send a message” to senators.
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But with a historic budget surplus, the two sides have a strong incentive to unite and deliver on Abbott’s tax cut promise. After much hand-wringing by Patrick over the House’s slow pace on priority bills, the Senate moved the House’s property tax bill into committee on Tuesday. The Senate’s bill, which was sent over in early April, remains tied up in a House committee.
Abbott hasn’t put his thumb on the scale for either proposal.
House leaders have never said homestead exemptions are off the table, but a behind-the-scenes conversation on where those exemptions end up could be key to a property tax cut plan.
Budget and other bills that could force a special session
During an April media campaign, Patrick had no qualms with threatening to force a special session if bills he supported did not receive House approval. Under the Texas Constitution, only the governor can call a special session, but Patrick has found ways to force overtime in the past.
“I can’t call a special session,” he said in April. “But I can create one by not passing a key bill that has to pass.”
In 2017, Patrick forced a special session by blocking the passage of a must-pass “sunset” bill that would have extended the life of several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, after the House did not pass prohibitions on transgender-friendly bathrooms and locker rooms and on his priority property tax legislation.
Patrick could do something similar this year by holding up the state budget or other “sunset” bills that are before the Legislature. Some of the agencies up for review this year are the beleaguered Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Public Utility Commission, which Patrick has feuded with before.
The two chambers still have some work to reconcile their differences. The House’s budget did not include money for Patrick’s $10 billion push to incentivize the building of natural gas power plants. The Senate, for its part, did not commit $1 billion from the House plan to freeze tuition hikes at public universities and colleges for two years.
That’s all on top of a lack of consensus on a school choice plan. Both chambers have included funding for Abbott’s “education savings account” proposal, but they appear to be far from reaching an acceptable compromise that could pass both chambers.
Patrick laid an unusually early marker for this session when he boldly declared in February 2022 that he wanted to end faculty tenure at public universities. He made good on the promise, designating the proposal a priority bill for the session and passing it out of the Senate late last month.
But it is still unclear how far it will go in the House. The House Higher Education Committee is set to consider the Senate bill in a hearing Monday.
Furthermore, Patrick appears to be on an island within the leadership trio when it comes to his campaign against tenure. Phelan, R-Beaumont, has said he opposes ending tenure, and Abbott was noncommittal when the issue arose more than a year ago.
The Texas A&M University System has pitched lawmakers on codifying parts of its current tenure policies into state law, rather than nixing tenure altogether. But that seems unlikely to satisfy Patrick, who has been steadfast in his crusade.
“Everyone’s afraid to say it, and I said it,” Patrick said in November.
Patrick has also prioritized banning diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices on campuses. The Senate version of that proposal is also receiving a House committee hearing Monday, and the lower chamber is seen as more amenable to it than abolishing tenure.
The House already went on the record last month when it voted to keep an anti-DEI measure in the budget. The cause also has the backing of the governor, who has publicly spoken against DEI programs.
One of Patrick’s highest priorities is restoring a higher penalty for illegal voting that lawmakers lowered in 2021. He is likely to get his way: Both chambers have passed bills that reinstate the crime to a felony, and Abbott supports the proposal.
But beyond that, the two chambers are not particularly in sync on election issues that have become deeply important to the GOP base.
Patrick and his Senate have prioritized increasing state oversight of elections — with a particular focus on Harris County, the biggest county in Texas that experienced multiple Election Day problems last year. The Senate has passed bills to ban the use of countywide voting on Election Day, eliminate Harris County’s elections administrator position and allow the state to order a new election if the county experiences shortages of paper ballots like it did last year.
None of those proposals has reached the House floor yet, and only one has been given a committee hearing.
House leaders may be wary of fresh fights over elections after the quorum break of 2021, when Democrats fled to Washington, D.C., to protest a raft of voting restrictions.
Patrick has prioritized two bills focused on transgender Texans. Senate Bill 14 would block transgender minors from receiving puberty blockers and hormone therapy — care that medical groups say is critical to a group at a higher risk for depression and suicide. Senate Bill 15 would require transgender collegiate athletes in the state to compete on sports teams that align with their sex assigned at birth, regardless of their gender identity.
The bills have been pushed by social conservatives in reaction to the increased visibility and participation of transgender people in sports, media and popular culture. Phelan, however, has been less vocal on the bills, preferring to focus on priorities that include extending Medicaid for low-income new mothers, focusing on infrastructure needs and creating a new state tax break to lure big businesses to Texas.
This week, House leaders set SB 14 for a vote before having to send it back to committee to clean up a procedural mistake — but not before Phelan ordered the House gallery cleared after protesters who support transgender rights burst into chants. The bill is set to return to the House floor Friday.
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The House also faces pressure to get to work on a Patrick priority bill that would ban drag shows in the presence of minors. That proposal, Senate Bill 12, has not gotten a House committee hearing yet. On Thursday, the Patrick-allied Texas Family Project announced a TV ad in Phelan’s district urging him to advance the bill.
Phelan’s list of priorities is less focused on hot-button conservative issues and more geared toward luring business to the state and improving the health of Texas women and children. Other priority bills would create new state funds for water and broadband infrastructure as well as a new model for community college funding.
Phelan also wants to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income new mothers to 12 months and end sales taxes for menstrual products and diapers.
Two years ago, the House passed a bill to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income mothers to 12 months, but the Senate bumped that down to six months. It is unclear which way the Senate will go this time on a bill that is awaiting action in a Senate committee.
Phelan also is supporting a criminal justice bill by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would divert kids in the juvenile justice system into community programs so they could stay closer to home instead of being sent to facilities far away.
If Patrick is unsatisfied with the House’s movement on his priority bills, the Senate could start killing some of Phelan’s priority bills, but that could be risky. Many of the proposals, like the creation of a mental health and brain research institute or the inclusion of death benefits for the thousands of troops deployed to the border with Mexico would be unpopular to kill.
Still, a resolution to put the funding of a brain research institute to voters has not moved in the Senate since early April.
There’s no issue that Abbott has poured more political capital into this session than school choice. He’s been crisscrossing the state for several months to hold gatherings at private schools, where he argues for giving parents more options on where to send their kids, specifically pitching state-funded education savings accounts (ESAs).
The Senate passed an ESA bill about a month ago, but its fate remains in question in the House. The lower chamber has long blocked such proposals, with Democrats and rural Republicans teaming up in opposition, arguing that public schools would be harmed.
That coalition carried the day in early April when the House voted 86-52 to amend the budget bill to ban state funding for “school vouchers or other similar programs.” Though closer than similar votes in the past, the split showed the proposal still faces an uphill battle in the House.
Days after that vote, the House Public Education Committee held a hearing on a set of ESA bills, which remain pending there. Monday is the last day the panel can vote them out.
With Patrick and Phelan tending to other priorities, the big question is how hard Abbott plans to push for the proposal to make it through the House. He has kept up his school choice roadshow, most recently appearing Tuesday in Houston.
“I can’t imagine the governor not calling us back if school choice doesn’t pass,” Patrick said in an April 24 radio interview. “We passed the best bill in the country on that issue [in the Senate], and he’s been working hard on it.”
Long before the session started in January, Patrick signaled that his highest priority would be increasing the reliability of the power grid by adding more power plants fueled by natural gas. Abbott, sensitive to suggestions that the grid still needs repairs after the 2021 session, was initially silent on Patrick’s push before getting onboard during his January inaugural address. Phelan has been more muted on the issue for months.
That has left an uncertain fate for Patrick’s priority grid legislation, Senate Bills 6 and 7, which he has deemed as must-pass. The proposals aim to spur the construction of more on-demand power generators such as natural-gas-fueled plants.
Experts have debated throughout the session whether the bills would actually strengthen the grid or would unintentionally harm it. Environmental advocates also have criticized an increased reliance on gas-fueled plants because they release greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.
Both of Patrick’s priority grid bills passed the Senate about a month ago, but SB 6 has not yet received a committee hearing in the House, while SB 7 received a hearing Wednesday in the House State Affairs Committee. After the committee chair, Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, heard multiple witnesses say the bill was not necessary, he left the bill pending — and was caught on microphone suggesting it was “left for dead.”
Patrick has said fixing the grid is “one of two issues that have to pass,” the other being his property-tax plan. And he has suggested he will hold hostage a Phelan priority bill on tax breaks if the House ignores his grid reforms. Phelan is pushing to overhaul a popular corporate tax-break program that Patrick killed last session, objecting to how much it benefited renewable energy projects. The overhaul, which initially passed the House on Thursday, excludes such projects in a bid to gain the Senate’s support.
“We’ll look at it, and we’ll work on it, but we need to fix the grid,” Patrick said in the radio interview. “If you can’t fix the grid, why do you want another 20 companies moving here?”
Natalia Contreras and Emily Foxhall contributed to this story.
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