AUSTIN — New money for schools. Raises for teachers. Cuts to property tax rates.
The Legislature largely delivered on its top priorities in what some are calling a historically successful, policy-driven, mostly drama-free session — one that ended with thank-you speeches and bear hugs rather than the shouting matches and threats of the previous session.
“In one session the House and the Senate have addressed property taxes, recapture, school finance reform, school reform, teacher pay, and in another bill, teacher retirement,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate. “One of those bills would have been a lot for any one session.”
But of course, there were flare-ups. Despite a commitment to meat-and-potatoes tax policy, in the final weeks of the session, contentious debates centering around LGBT discrimination, voting rights and access to abortion took center stage.
As a result of the work by Texas lawmakers over the past five months, by Sept. 1 you can take your craft beer to go, 18-year-olds can no longer buy cigarettes, and a wider range of patients can access medical marijuana products.
“You’ll look back on this session and it may be the greatest session in modern times,” Patrick told his members this week. “Maybe ever.”
Here are the highlights from the 86th Texas legislative session:
Lawmakers successfully passed a bill investing $11.6 billion to give more money to every school district in the state.
Teachers, who may have been holding out for the $5,000 pay raise promised by the Senate, will get a more modest bump in salary that depends on how much new money their school district receives.
Educators will also have an opportunity to increase their pay as much as $32,000 if their districts participate in the new state merit pay program, awarding higher salaries to top-performing teachers.
The bill overhauls the state’s funding formula, pumping more money into school districts with the highest proportion of needy students. It rewards districts with more money if school graduates enroll in college or the military. Full-day prekindergarten for low-income families is funded, and the bill extends the school year with summer programs for at-risk students.
Lawmakers addressed property taxes in two ways. First, they slowed the growth city and county tax bills by imposing a 3.5% cap on revenue collections over the previous year.
Local leaders say the move is dangerous and will result in cuts to service and an inability to fully pay for public safety, which makes up more than half of local budgets.
The cap could be exceeded if voters approve the tax increase in an election. Currently, cities and counties can increase tax revenue up to 8% a year without the threat of an election.
In the school funding bill, lawmakers cut school tax rates, which will shave some money off tax bills. In 2020, rates will decline an average of 8 cents per $100 of valuation, 13 cents in 2021.
The bill calls for the tax rate to be lowered as property values increase, so the state’s share of public education funding will increase every year. But the Legislature failed to address this session how to pay for the future tax relief.
More than halfway through the session, Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen surprised lawmakers by supporting a plan to increase the sales tax by a penny to fund property tax cuts.
But lawmakers did not coalesce around the plan. Republicans were fearful it would be construed as a tax increase and Democrats said it disproportionately hurt poor people.
The budget and the border
Lawmakers had $9 billion more of general-purpose state revenue for the upcoming two-year cycle than the $110 billion they had last time.
As in 2017, some lawmakers hoped there would be a “Trump dividend” — a ramp up of federal immigration enforcement at the border with Mexico that would allow Texas to pull back on the more than $800 million per budget cycle it’s been spending on border security.
The federal help didn’t materialize. State lawmakers again approved $800.6 million, which pays for Department of Public Safety troopers and other state peace officers to assist at the border.
At the last minute, Abbott pressed House and Senate budget negotiators to tap the rainy day fund for another $100 million — apparently to pay for a federal National Guard “surge” this summer. At first, the lawmakers complied. But the move inflamed Democrats. The prospect of a nasty fight over what they grumbled was an unnecessary “loan” to the federal government, on the session’s final weekend, prompted GOP leaders hastily to erase the $100 million requested.
Budget writers also needed more than $9 billion to support a deal on school finance and tax cuts — $2.6 billion more. Hegar gave them only about one-fifth of that, and lawmakers scrounged and improvised, bridging the gap in ways that can charitably be called optimistic, experts said.
The final two-year budget would spend $250.7 billion, including $118.9 billion of general-purpose state revenue. A “supplemental” bill that, in part, fills gaps in last session’s budget and pays for emergencies such as Hurricane Harvey, would spend $9.9 billion more, $6.1 billion of it from the rainy day fund. By the end of fiscal 2021, the fund, drawn mostly from energy production taxes, still should have about $9.5 billion.
Drugs and alcohol
One of the most-watched bills of the year would have decreased penalties for getting caught with small amounts of marijuana. The bipartisan legislation passed easily in the Texas House but was not even debated in the Senate after Patrick said he opposed it.
Lawmakers did approve a bill to allow hemp production and formally legalize low-THC cannabidiol, or CBD, products in Texas.
Abbott will also decide whether to make Texas the most populous Southern state to increase the legal sales age of cigarettes, e-cigs and other tobacco products to 21, up from 18. Young members of the military would be exempt.
A major beer distributors group agreed to let craft breweries sell up to a case of beer per customer, per day, to go. But another effort to let Texans buy beer and wine from retail stores two hours earlier on Sunday died.
Another bill that failed would have legalized fantasy sports betting — at least the kind involving a company making money from the practice. It cleared the House without drawing a hearing in the Senate. The bill author, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said Saturday that failure to act on the issue “leaves thousands upon thousands of Texans in jeopardy of prosecution.”
Lawmakers puts the breaks on red light cameras this year, but the bill to outlaw the cameras will allow cities to finish up their current contracts first. If it becomes law, it will be a first for Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford libertarian Republican more known for killing bills than passing them.
Changes meant to alleviate long lines at the Department of Public Safety’s driver’s license centers are also on their way to the governor.
Senate Bill 616 by Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would increase the expiration term of driver’s licenses from six to eight years and commission a third-party study on moving the issuance of driver’s licenses from DPS to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
A proposal by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, to enact statewide scooter regulations failed.
This year, lawmakers generally steered clear of divisive legislation like the bathroom bill and sanctuary cities ban that dominated the 2017 session.
As the session opened, the Texas House’s new LGBTQ Caucus bemoaned several bills they said would lessen gay and transgender rights. But few of these were ultimately debated, and only one passed and is likely to become law. The so-called “Save Chick-Fil-A” bill would prohibit the government from taking “adverse action” against a business or person for their contributions to or membership in religious organizations.
The Texas House scuttled proposals to slow the removal of historical monuments, including the Alamo’s Cenotaph, but pushed through a bill to lift licensure rules after a natural disaster so Texans can openly carry their handguns for up to a week. This bill is now on Abbott’s desk.
In addition to pay increases funded through the school finance bill, retired teachers will get an extra pension check up to $2,000. Texas will spend more than $1 billion to pay for this boost and make the state teacher pension financially sound.
After reports raised serious new questions about the state’s high-stakes tests, lawmakers voted to eliminate two State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exams. Kids in grades four and seven will no longer take the required writing tests, and schools will be able to administer all STAAR exams over several days instead of in one sitting.
After a student killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School last summer, lawmakers will funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into districts for school safety projects, including campus “hardening” and counseling, and also created a statewide consortium to connect schoolchildren to more mental health services.
The legal definition of “hazing” will be expanded to include forcing someone to consume drugs or large amounts of alcohol and will make prosecuting such conduct easier. The bipartisan legislation was filed after multiple recent hazing deaths in Texas.
This year, Democrats filed several bills that would have enacted wholesale changes in the adult and juvenile justice system. But from bringing in outside oversight to the Texas prison system to consolidating facilities that house youthful offenders, all the big-ticket items failed to gain any traction in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Bills to force the state to install climate control in its prisons also failed, as did an effort to keep the state from sentencing people with intellectual disabilities to death.
But criminal justice advocates celebrated several smaller victories. Abbott has signed a bill to improve conditions in women’s prisons and has received another that would make it easier for people with a nonviolent criminal record to get occupational licenses.
Finally, the state has mothballed the hugely unpopular Driver Responsibility Program, which stuck Texans unable to pay traffic infraction fines with extra costs and lost licenses.
Republican leaders did not open the gates to far-reaching, legally questionable proposals to nearly ban abortion or to bar an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. They did advance bills prioritized by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick barring local governmental bodies from contracting with abortion providers or affiliates; imposing penalties on a physician who fails to care for an infant born alive after an abortion; and toughening the mandate that a physician hand state-produced information to a woman seeking an abortion.
Lawmakers also sent Abbott a bill making the unauthorized implantation of “human reproductive material,” without a patient’s consent, a new category of sexual assault. That bill was set in motion by Eve Wiley of Dallas after she learned that her mother’s fertility doctor was her father.
While lawmakers didn’t lessen criminal penalties for marijuana possession, they did slightly expand the state’s medical cannabis laws. If Abbott signs Fort Worth Rep. Stephanie Klick’s bill into law, come Sept. 1 Texans with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, terminal cancer, autism and all manner of seizure disorders will have access to low-THC medical marijuana.
Cities won’t be able to ban dogs on restaurant patios and lemonade stands will finally be legal thanks to two bills filed by North Texas lawmakers that now sit on Abbott’s desk.
But despite the governor’s support, lawmakers were unable to force a revival of the Aggies-Longhorns rivalry game. A bill threatening to withhold funding for the University of Texas and Texas A&M failed to get much traction.
And Texans will still have to change their clocks after time ran out on a bill to end to Daylight Saving Time.