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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Legislature opens with Republicans having smaller majorities in both chambers as a result of electoral defeats, which suggests that hot-button social issues could take a back seat to such matters as fixing the state’s flawed school finance system, cutting property taxes and paying for Hurricane Harvey recovery.
That might mean fewer culture clashes over immigration and a “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people, but making progress on lowering taxes and overhauling school funding won’t be easy.
And while both Republicans and Democrats agree the state will have to cover many post-Harvey expenses, how much of the expected $15 billion in its rainy day fund will be tapped for that purpose is unclear.
Here’s what to watch for when the session begins on Tuesday:
NEW HOUSE SPEAKER
For years, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and top conservatives in the Senate he oversees blamed moderate Republican House Speaker Joe Straus for blocking bills championed by the tea party and other activists. Straus, who held the post since 2009, has retired but is being replaced by Dennis Bonnen, a veteran Republican who was a key lieutenant of the previous speaker.
If Bonnen sticks to a more business-minded conservativism favored by Straus, that could lead to new clashes with Patrick. So far, though, the two have played nice. In a joint statement in November, Patrick said working with Bonnen should “lead to better and bold policy” while Bonnen called chamber unity his “utmost goal.”
PROPERTY TAX CUTS VS. SCHOOL FUNDING
Gov. Greg Abbott is promising to cut property taxes. But that may be impossible without tackling how Texas pays for public schools, which depend heavily on local property taxes.
Something’s got to give. Or, more likely given the Legislature’s history, this session could come and go without major headway on either issue.
Both chambers were unable to compromise on competing property tax proposals and ended 2017 largely empty-handed. Meanwhile, the all-Republican state Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the school finance system was deeply flawed but also minimally constitutional, sparing lawmakers from being forced to devise a fix.
Longtime Republican Rep. Charlie Geren has proposed a constitutional amendment mandating that the state cover half of all public school costs, up from the less than 40 percent currently. That could drastically reduce local property tax burdens, but would also mean having to find billions more for education elsewhere in the state budget.
State lawmakers adjourned their special session on Aug. 15, 2017, 10 days before Harvey hit Texas. Since then, the federal government has steered billions to the state for recovery while Texas has spent comparatively little.
The rainy day fund is expected to be worth $15 billion, but lawmakers already have set limits, meaning only about half of it likely can be spent. How much of that will go on post-Harvey expenses remains to be seen — and every penny could spark ferocious debate.
Texas has spent $800 million in each of its last two budget cycles on border security and may do so again, as a fight over funding on the issue that has shut down the federal government for the foreseeable future hasn’t sparked as much state-level derision.
The Legislature has instead battled over immigration policy, especially last session while approving the nation’s toughest anti-“sanctuary cities” law. Another major immigration crackdown isn’t expected this session, though there could be a renewed push to repeal a law that passed with bipartisan support in 2001 offering in-state tuition at Texas universities for some students in the country illegally.
A bathroom bill requiring transgender Texans to use public bathrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates was the most contentious issue of the 2017 session, prompting the NFL and some of the nation’s most powerful companies to threaten to boycott Texas should it pass.
After the measure failed during the regular session, Abbott revived it during the special session only to watch it die again . Now the governor says the issue is no longer on his agenda and no lawmaker has yet filed legislation on it for 2019 –though they have until March 8 to do so and some conservative activists are clamoring to try again.
In 2015, Texas legalized the use of a low-THC cannabis oil to treat “intractable epilepsy” but the state’s restrictive distribution laws mean fewer than 600 out of 150,000 potentially eligible Texas patients have purchased it .
There will be efforts this session to expand who can qualify for use under that law, and now that nearly two-thirds of U.S. states have legalized some form of marijuana — including Texas’ conservative neighbors Arkansas and Oklahoma — advocates see chances for an opening. But proposals calling for broader legalization almost certainly remain unattainable.
By WILL WEISSERT