Here’s What Texas Capitol Reporters Are Watching For This Legislative Session

The new House speaker, school finance and property taxes will likely dominate this session, instead of social issues that were key in 2017.

By Jill AmentJanuary 8, 2019 11:23 am

As a new session of the Texas Legislature begins Tuesday, there’s a lot for politics watchers and average citizens to look forward to in Texas politics. Veteran members of the Capitol press corps joined Texas Standard Host David Brown for a look at what to expect from the session. They are: Bob Garrett, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News; Carlos Sanchez, politics editor for Texas Monthly; and Karina Kling, anchor of Capital Tonight on Spectrum News.

First thing’s first, the Texas House of Representatives will likely elect Rep. Dennis Bonnen Tuesday as the chamber’s speaker. Garrett says Bonnen has worked off and on at the State Captiol for a long time, since he was an undergraduate at St. Edward’s University in Austin. He was first elected to represent House District 25 in Angleton in 1996.

“He is an interesting character … he is aggressive, he is colorful, he is very talented when he digs into something,” Garrett says. “He’s a real operative; it’s gonna be fun to watch.”

Kling says Bonnen was closely aligned with outgoing Speaker Joe Straus, so it remains to be seen who he’ll align with when he becomes speaker, and how he’ll interact with the state’s top lawmakers.

“The real interesting divide will be to see how the “big three,” so to speak – Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, as well as Dennis Bonnen – play together this next legislative session,” Kling says.

She says Bonnen stood up to Patrick during the last session over things like property tax reform.

Sanchez says lawmakers can breathe a slight sigh of relief when it comes to the state budget, since Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar released a revenue estimate Monday that’s eight percent higher than that of the last session two years ago.

“There will be about $119 billion available for the next biennium,” Sanchez says. “A lot of people are happy with the amount of money that is available.”

But Sanchez says lawmakers will still face pressure to reform property taxes and public education during the session.

Garrett says over the years, public education funding has come more and more from homeowner property tax revenue, and less from the state. And as for the comptroller’s revenue estimate, Garrett says that number likely won’t change during the session – it’s all the money legislators will have to work with.

“Traditionally, Texas comptrollers will lowball it at the beginning of the session, and then come in and put a little more money on the table before the end of session,” Garrett says. “I think this time, he’s given ’em pretty much everything he can because of the shakiness of the larger economy in the country and the world.”

He says that money is meant for property taxes and school finance, which are ambitious goals.

“He gave them the money up front; they got their Christmas present,” Garrett says.

Hot-button social issues that dominated the last session, like the so-called bathroom bill – which required individuals who identify as transgender to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate – don’t seem to be as important this year. Kling says voters in the midterms sent a message to lawmakers that issues like school finance and health care are more important to them right now.

“We may see a bathroom bill filed, but I don’t know that it will go anywhere,” Kling says. “I think the real focus is going to be on some of these bigger issues.”

Marijuana has been a significant topic recently at other state legislatures, and Garrett says the Texas Legislature might take it up, but mostly to lower penalties for those caught carrying small amounts of the plant.

“That fits into this larger right-on-crime push that a lot of conservative Republicans have gotten behind,” Garrett says. “I’m not sure we’re ready to go to full-on medicinal or recreational marijuana in Texas.”

Sanchez says he expects another focus of lawmakers will be Hurricane Harvey recovery. He says that discussion will bring up how the state uses its rainy day fund.

“[It’s] up to now, about $15 billion, and people are just saying, given where it’s at – it’s one of the largest savings accounts in the country – we should be spending some of it for some of these extra-curricular emergencies,” Sanchez says.

Written by Caroline Covington.