Texas Lawmakers Back to Work for Biennial Session

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – As the 86th Texas Legislature convened Tuesday for the start of its biennial 140-day session, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was conspicuously absent when a Republican lawmaker gaveled in the Senate in his place.

Visitors and guests line up in the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol to enter the House chamber for the beginning of the 86th legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

“He was called by the White House for an important meeting in Washington today to discuss issues that are critical to Texas,” said Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, as she opened the legislative session. “When the White House calls you to Washington, you go to Washington.”

Patrick was is in the nation’s capital for a meeting on border security issues, hours before President Donald Trump is scheduled to make his case for funding his promised border wall in a televised address.

Meanwhile, in the Texas House of Representatives, newly elected Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, criticized the federal government and promised that the Lone Star State would “serve as the nation’s model for effective governance.”

“Our federal government is steeped in gridlock and partisanship,” Bonnen said in his speech to the state House on Tuesday. “For Washington, politics has become more important than people, but unlike Washington, Texas stands apart. We lead the nation by doing things our way and we do it with strength, unity and resolve.”

“We represent the will of the people, come hell or high water,” he added.

The Republican legislator has represented District 25, a swath of land and small towns along the Gulf of Mexico, for 22 years. During his tenure, he’s earned a reputation as a tough, straight-talking, and sometimes challenging leader, but his colleagues voted unanimously on Tuesday to elect him as speaker.  

Bonnen asked his colleagues to get to know each other better, and said that “fostering the spirit of collaboration” is his priority for the session.

That goal is not only a response to the partisan gridlock in Congress, but likely also stems from the antics and antagonistic tenor in the Texas House’s last session in 2017, which erupted with a scuffle and threats of violence after a Republican lawmaker said he had called U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement on protesters opposing an anti-sanctuary cities measure.

Bonnen reminded legislators that the House belongs to all Texans.

“John Steinbeck nailed it when he described what sets Texas apart,” he said. “He wrote for all its enormous range of space, climate and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles … Texas has a tight cohesiveness, perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, panhandle, gulf, city or country, Texas is the obsession and the passionate possession of all Texans.”

Bonnen will also need Republicans and Democrats to work together in order to pass meaningful legislation on the two issues that nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle says are the top priorities this session: school finance and property tax reform.

Many legislators believe it is time to revamp the “Robin Hood” system of school finance, which recaptures property tax revenue from wealthy school districts and distributes it to poorer districts. As property taxes rise in many parts of the state, Texas has been able to contribute less and less to public education.

At the same time, however, many in the state government want to address Texans’ skyrocketing property taxes. Governor Greg Abbott has suggested limiting any increase in property taxes to 2.5 percent a year.

It remains to be seen how the Legislature will boost school funding while also reducing property taxes.

Although lawmakers wanted to address these issues during the last legislative session, they were overshadowed by contentious issues like sanctuary cities and the anti-transgender bathroom bill, which both Abbott and Patrick had deemed as one of their legislative priorities.

While the legislature did pass anti-sanctuary city legislation, the bathroom bill ultimately died during a special legislative session in the summer of 2017.

Both Abbott and Bonnen, a co-author on the bathroom bill, have said they will not push the issue this year.   

“My intent is for the House to be focused on real issues like school finance reform, property tax reform,” Bonnen told the Dallas Morning News. “And I would be very discouraged if we were distracted by an issue that could derail those significant challenges that we need to solve.”

Another issue that will likely gain a lot of traction this year is school safety, in response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School last May, which killed 10 students and staff members. Bills have already been filed that would boost mental health services at schools and make it easier for school marshals — staff members who carry concealed weapons — to get a gun license.   

While the Legislature typically spends a significant amount of time debating and passing anti-abortion measures — bills which often end up as the subjects of lawsuits in federal courts — there are only a handful of proposed bills and resolutions relating to abortion that have been filed so far.

Senate Joint Resolution 3 proposes a “constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to life of unborn children and prohibiting abortion to the extent authorized under federal law,” while Senate Bill 150 would amend the Texas Health and Safety Code to state that every woman in Texas has the “fundamental right to choose to obtain a safe and legal abortion,” and that the state will not “enforce a law on abortion that places a burden on a woman’s access to abortion and does not confer any legitimate health benefit to the woman.”

The Legislature will meet again on Wednesday.

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