AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Running on a biennial schedule, the Texas Legislature returned to work Tuesday to keep the second most populous state in the country going.
The Lone Star State saw its most conservative legislative session in a generation in 2021, including passage of the strictest abortion ban in the country, permitless carry of handguns, voting restrictions and a bill that banned transgender kids from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
With lawmakers back in Austin for the 2023 legislative session, they have charted two possible paths forward: making 2021 the runner-up for the most conservative session or straying from the culture war to address the day-to-day functions of the state.
The priority list for Republicans and Democrats this session begins with the one task they are constitutionally required to complete: pass a balanced budget for the next two years.
Joshua Blank, research director at the University of Texas at Austin's Texas Politics Project, said in an interview that creating the next budget may prove to be more challenging than before, considering lawmakers have inherited a record-breaking $32.7 billion surplus from the 2022-2023 budget.
“One, lawmakers have to manage the expectations and requests surrounding the surplus that many in the state are jockeying for, but they also have to contend with the fact that there are constitutional spending limits that they have long touted as important,” Blank said.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott told the members of the Texas House of Representatives that the budget surplus has made him more excited about this session than any other.
“We are blessed with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put our state on the course of unassailable excellence for generations to come,” the governor said.
Deciding what to spend surplus dollars on is a conversation both Democrats and Republicans are excited to have.
Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat, is the newly elected leader of the House Democratic Caucus and sees the surplus as an opportunity for pragmatism.
“Over the last 30 years, Republicans have controlled everything from top to bottom and with [$32.7 billion] in the bank, this is a good opportunity to start having a conversation about" the issues on the minds of Texans, Martinez Fischer said in an interview with Spectrum News 1. “We can be pragmatic and we can put people first… over politics and if we do that, we are going to have a good session.”
Blank said if Republicans who control the Legislature take up the culture war issues that appeal to their core constituents, the session may not be as productive as some would like.
“Any time spent on the most contentious issues is necessarily going to take away time from other issues,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, culture war issues have taken up much of the attention at the start of the session. First and foremost is the targeting of LGBTQ rights.
An increasing number of bills introduced so far are aimed at the transgender community, and more specifically transgender kids. House Bill 42, filed by Representative Bryan Slaton, a Republican from Royse City, would make it child abuse for a medical or mental health provider to prescribe hormone blockers or gender-affirming surgeries for minors. Slaton’s bill comes after Abbott directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate parents of transgender children and the physicians who provide them care for child abuse.
HB 643, filed by Republican Representative Jared Patterson of Frisco, targets drag performances. The bill would designate any venues that show drag performances as a sexually oriented business, placing them in the same category as strip clubs and adult movie stores. Those businesses would be forced to obtain a license to operate and restricted from operating near schools and places of worship.
After the Republican Party of Texas made “stop sexualizing Texas kids” one of its priorities for the 2023 session, lawmakers have answered their call by proposing a bill that mirrors Florida's controversial "Don't Say Gay" law. Texas' HB 1155 would similarly prohibit teachers from discussing topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.
“Parents and taxpayers have spoken loudly over the past year-plus. The message is no more radical ideology in the classroom- particularly when it comes to inappropriate or obscene content,” Patterson said in a statement.
Texas Speaker of the House, Republican Dade Phelan of Beaumont, echoed this mission, calling upon his fellow representatives to “stand up for Texas children” against “exploitation, sexualization and indoctrination.”
Another classroom-related issue is safety. This legislative session will be the first since an 18-year-old gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 students and two teachers in May 2022. Parents of the slain children have spoken out and called on Abbott and lawmakers to enact gun control measures that may have prevented the shooting in Uvalde.
Democratic Senator Roland Gutierrez, whose distinct includes Uvalde, has introduced Senate Bill 145, which would raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21. Democrats have also proposed so-called red flag laws, which allow individuals to seek a court order to have someone’s firearms removed if they pose a risk of harming themselves or others. Other bills would raise taxes on assault-style weapons and limit their transfer from person to person.
A poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project in October found that 55% of Texans believe gun laws should be more strict, with 87% of respondents identifying as Democrats, 27% identifying as Republicans and 38% as independents. But Republican lawmakers who would have the ultimate say on the matter show no interest in making such reforms.
Abbott and GOP lawmakers have instead advocated for providing schools with better security infrastructure. In October, it was announced that $400 million will go to the Texas Education Agency for the sole purpose of helping schools upgrade doors, windows, fencing and communications equipment. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who leads the state Senate, committed to providing more funding in a press conference in early December.
Another contentious issue facing the legislature is border security. Abbott embarked on his very own border security initiative called Operation Lone Star and has also used charter buses to transport migrants awaiting their day in court from communities in Texas to Democrat-led cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. In total, the governor’s border-related projects have cost Texans over $4 billion with more funding expected to be on the way.
Texas’ legislative session will last 140 days. In addition to being limited on time and only meeting every two years, during the first 60 days of the session lawmakers are not permitted to begin voting on any proposed bills unless they address an emergency priority made by the governor.
These limitations add pressure to all the controversial issues taking center stage this session, in addition to the financial management of the state. When attempting to read the tea leaves of how this session may proceed, Blank said anything is possible.
“There is no sense that because the legislature passed a lot of conservative legislation last time, therefore, they don’t intend to pass the same types of conservative legislation this time,” he said.
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