Texas Lawmakers Reach Deal on School Funds, Taxes

(CN) – It’s a mantra Texas officials have repeated for months and probably say in their sleep: We need more school funding and property tax reform. Their vision came to light with an $11 billion package lawmakers unveiled Thursday.

“The Texas Plan for school finance is the most historic investment made in Texas public education in decades. We devoted $5 billion to property tax relief, $2 billion for dynamic pay raises for educators and experienced teachers, $4.5 billion for critical education reforms like full day pre-K for low income students,” Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said in a statement Thursday.

The plan will raise the state’s per-student contribution to school districts from $5,140 to $6,160 and lower school district taxes, which account for the bulk of Texans’ property taxes, by an average of 8 cents per $100 of home value in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021.

At 8 cents lower, the taxes for a $250,000 home will drop $200 a year, while a 13 cent decrease equates to $325 in savings.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott still has to sign the three bills in the package, which includes a budget that will guide state spending in 2020 and 2021.

The broad bipartisan support for these measures marks a welcome retreat from the culture wars of the 2017 legislative session in which legislators battled over a “bathroom bill” critics blasted as discriminatory against transgender people, and business leaders warned would cost the state billions in tourist and convention revenue. It did not become law even after Abbott tried to rally support during a special session in which he brought lawmakers back to Austin in June 2017 to hash out unfinished business.

The added education funding comes at a critical time for Texas. With around 1,000 people moving to the state every day, student enrollment in public schools grew by 728,189 students to more than 5.3 million from the late 2000s to 2017, according to Abbott and the Texas Education Agency.

The school financing and property tax measures were among thousands of bills Texas legislators filed this session, which ends on Memorial Day.

Senate Bill 7, passed on May 22 and waiting for Abbott’s signature, will help cities still recovering from Hurricane Harvey prepare for natural disasters by establishing a $3.3 billion Flood Infrastructure Fund drawn from the state’s savings account. It will allow cities and counties to apply for grants and loans to finance flood-mitigation projects.

Residents leave a flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Sept. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Also on Abbott’s desk, Senate Bill 21 will make Texas the 15th state to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes, e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco from 18 to 21. It will take effect Sept. 1.

Lawmakers are still working on their response to a May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School in which 10 people were killed, two teachers and eight students.

Senate Bill 11 would mandate installation of emergency telephones in classrooms, and school districts to put together threat assessment teams to identify troubled students.

Police respond to a shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. ( Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Critics say the bill could cause outcasts to be misidentified as mentally unstable, and subject them to unnecessary counseling.

To try to stop bullies from targeting classmates on social media, SB 11 calls for the Texas Board of Education to force school districts to incorporate “digital citizenship” lessons into their curriculum.

Religious groups are optimistic that SB 1978, dubbed the “Save Chick Fil A” bill by proponents, will be signed into law. Its sponsors say it would bring legal repercussions to cities such as San Antonio. Its City Council and mayor voted in March to stop the fast-food chain from opening a restaurant in the airport due to its owners’ support of groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

Anti death-penalty groups are also eyeing the Legislature. Since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 561 people, Virginia ranks second with 113, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

House Bill 1139 would set up a screening process in which capital murder defendants could request a pretrial hearing for a judge to decide if they are mentally disabled. Proponents point to Bobby Moore. He has been on death row in Texas since a jury sentenced him to death in 1980 for shooting a grocery store clerk.

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed two rulings by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or TCCA, finding Moore is competent to be put to death.

In the high court’s latest ruling in February, a 6-3 majority said the TCCA had overemphasized the progress Moore has made in prison, going from illiterate to writing at a seventh-grade level, and had strayed from its precedent that adjudications of mental disability should be informed by medical experts.

Legislation to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession failed, but medical cannabis advocates are cheering another measure headed for Abbott’s desk. House Bill 3703 would expand access to CBD, a non-psychoactive substance in marijuana anecdotally shown to decrease seizures.

Texas craft beer fans also have reason to smile as an amendment tucked into a bill to keep the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission running will allow them to buy beer to go from more breweries starting in September.

Legislators proposed a series of bills aimed at regulating Texas Central Partners’ high-speed rail project the company is seeking to build on a 240-mile stretch between Houston and Dallas.

Many were left spinning their wheels in the House Transportation subcommittee, which was formed specifically to manage the high speed rail bills.

The project has yet to gain traction as Texas Central Partners is awaiting a final ruling from Texas courts on whether it qualifies as a railroad, which would give it the right to use eminent domain to buy land from rural property owners who oppose the rail.

The only high-speed rail legislation to make it out of committee was House Bill 1986.  It would require a rail company to follow federal regulations mandating high-speed rail passenger cars can be operated on both conventional and high-speed rail tracks. The bill’s viability is in question as it is still awaiting a hearing before the full Texas House as of Friday afternoon.

Dominated by religious Republicans, the Legislature has been unusually quiet this session on abortion, sitting back as numerous other states have passed legislation to ban abortions earlier in pregnancies.

House Bill 16, known as the “Born Alive” bill, addresses the rare scenario of babies who survive abortion attempts. Doctors who do not provide appropriate treatment for the babies, such as transferring them to a hospital, could be charged with a third-degree felony with a maximum punishment of  10 years in prison.  Abbott is expected to sign it into law.

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The Legislature is also close to passing a bill to stop cities and counties from partnering with Planned Parenthood on sex education programs, and using tax dollars to pay for them. Critics say Senate Bill 22 could lead to a spike in teen pregnancies. 

James Palmer contributed to this report.

%d bloggers like this: