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Gov. Greg Abbott named his emergency legislative priorities during Tuesday’s State of the State address.
As heard on Texas Public Radio
He praised the state’s economy and job growth, and he noted what people say when he asks them why they moved to Texas. “Now listen I know, we may not be perfect, but all the newcomers I talk to, they think that Texas is a governmental holy grail,” Abbott said. His speech targeted five priorities: property taxes, education funding and teacher pay, school safety, mental health issues and, in light of continued recovery from Hurricane Harvey — disaster response. He spent most of his speech on education and teacher pay. He suggested various reforms, singled out districts he called successes, and set goals for the state. “Working together we will create a Texas where every student is reading at grade level by the time they finish the 3rd grade,” he said, “where every child, regardless of their zip code, will receive a quality education.” State Rep. Dan Huberty, Republican representing Humble, chairs the House Committee on Public Education. He said when it comes to school finance, there are two big hurdles. The first is state lawmakers’ understanding of the way Texas currently funds schools.
“Today we’ve got kind of a School Finance 101, kind of where we were and tomorrow where we are going, so tomorrow we’ve got members of the School Finance Commission coming to talk to us tomorrow to explain the plan and what we think is important,” Huberty said. The second biggest hurdle, Huberty said, is getting House and Senate lawmakers to agree on a single plan that would provide more state funding for public schools. Huberty said there are a lot of strong opinions. Some lawmakers, like State Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, believe any effort to reform school finance should also include legislation creating a private school voucher system.
“So I am an eternal optimist that parents will be able to choose at some point where they want their children to be educated, so I am still a strong school choice advocate,” Campbell said.
Campbell says she plans to file a bill on it, even though it may not receive much support. Property taxes is another issue Abbott highlighted. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from the Houston-area, is the author of legislation that would limit how much cities and counties can raise property taxes without voter approval.
“And it’s not only going to apply to cities and counties and local districts but it is also going to apply to schools as well,” he said. “You have to do all sides of the tax bill to get good property taxes relief, and this would dramatically reduce how fast the property tax bills are rising.”
Bettencourt worked on this issue last session, but he says the House and Senate couldn’t agree on what level of tax increase would require an election. “The laugh line that I use is the House was at 6-percent, the Senate was at 4-percent and governor compromised at 2.5-percent,” Bettencourt said. But some lawmakers disagree with this approach altogether. San Antonio State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer — a Democrat — believes it would hamstring cities and counties who rely on these taxes to plan for future growth and infrastructure costs.
“In my city of San Antonio, property taxes from the city bring in one third of budget expenses for the entire city,” he said. “Make no mistake — any cap on local government is going to be a cap on our public safety,” Martinez Fischer said. Abbott’s speech targeted “emergency priorities” because state lawmakers are not required to pass legislation on anything the governor considers to be his top issues. But by labeling them emergency items, he ensures they remain at the top of the list of what they’re willing to consider. Throughout the first 60 days of a session, lawmakers can work on only the state budget and any emergency items.
The 2019 legislative session runs through May. Ryan Poppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RyanPoppe1