In Austin, lawmakers are packing their bags after concluding what was a surprisingly rancor-free 140 days. In recent sessions of the Legislature, issues from abortion to transgender bathrooms and sanctuary cities had become front page news, derailing much needed work on longstanding problems like school finance. This year, the “big three” – the governor, lieutenant governor and the new house speaker – promised to work together on a common agenda. The result was a notable demonstration in getting things done, rather than playing to the extremes.
Alana Rocha, multimedia reporter for the Texas Tribune and Carlos Sanchez, senior editor for Texas Monthly, joined Texas Standard Host David Brown and Social Media Producer Wells Dunbar for a conversation about what did and did not get accomplished, and what it means for Texans.
The session was bookended by controversy over Secretary of State David Whitley’s list of voters he alleged might not legally registered. As the session ended, he submitted his resignation, having failed to get a confirmation vote in the Senate, and having attracted three federal lawsuits over the list.
“It was in late January that this came out, and it basically married any chance of him getting a vote after more problems with the voter citizenship roll review came out,” Rocha says. “And so he became the face of it. He didn’t perform exceptionally well when he went before a Senate committee to answer questions about the process.”
Sanchez says Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick could have pushed Whitley’s nomination through if Democrats were missing from the Senate chamber. The nomination needed the support of two-thirds of the Senate’s members. With all 12 Democrats present and voting no, that wasn’t an option.
Despite a few contentious bills, Rocha says the governor and leaders of both chambers managed to remain unified, passing school finance, property tax relief and the budget.
“It was the kumbaya that never ended,” she says.
The good feelings extended to lawmakers Rocha and her colleagues interviewed. But behind the scenes, she says, staffers and interest groups were less delighted by the session’s outcome.
The math that allowed both school finance reform and property tax caps to be enacted wasn’t clear to a lot of observers. Sanchez says it’s likely the next legislative session will feature a tax increase of some kind “either by way of getting rid of some of the existing waivers, or revisiting that whole issue of the sales tax,” Sanchez says.
This session, a plan to increase the sales tax died, when conservatives and liberals opposed it – albeit for different reasons – and the Legislative Budget Board produced a negative assessment of the proposal.
Sanchez says the state faces a structural deficit which threatens a lasting solution to school finance.
“There is no permanent revenue source aimed at giving that money… to the students in the future,” Sanchez says. “… The reason that we were allowed a sort of kumbaya session is that there was a lot of money in the bank.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.