The only legislation that can pass out of the Texas Capitol in the first 60 days of the session is a priority item from the governor’s office or a bill that wins a super majority. But that does not mean elected officials aren’t busy.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the beginning of the legislative session is filled with committee assignments and early planning for the spring. Starting at the end of March, the floodgates open and all the bills that have been introduced are eligible to be voted on.
“The leadership is discussing committee chair positions. Once those committee chairs are assigned over the next couple of weeks, then you’ll start having committee hearings and debates over the legislation,” he said. “In Texas, we try to cram effectively what most legislatures do during an entire two-year period into five months. So right now is everybody getting their ducks in a row, everybody getting the legislation set up for the sprint that begins in March.”
The Legislature is also still waiting to hear what Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities will be — the governor will share them in a yet-to-be-scheduled State of the State address in early February.
Jones said he expects the budget surplus to be a major topic of discussion at the statehouse. Not only does the state have billions of dollars of surplus funds for this budget year, which ends on Sept. 1, but there will also be an increase in the available budget for the next biennium, he said.
“There’s a lot of money on the table, and that’s going to dominate the legislative session,” he said. “First, how to spend that surplus and then what are you going to do with the budget increases that you have the possibility of having? And how much of that are you going to rebate back to taxpayers in the form of homestead exemption increases or other tax benefits?”
Jones clarified that this surplus is different from the Economic Stabilization Fund — often called the “Rainy Day Fund” — which is set aside for when the state experiences economic downturns. However, he said he expects some portion of the surplus to be put into that fund.
“There are spending caps in Texas. So a supermajority in the Legislature agrees they aren’t going to be able to spend all that,” he said. “But that’s going to be one of the debates that’ll be occurring over the next couple of months is how much of that money they should spend and how much they should save. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate probably wants to save a little more; Democrats in, say, the House probably want to spend a little more.”
Jones said he’s curious to see which issues attract the most surplus funding — a few he anticipates will be on the table include education and border security.
Separate from the budget, Jones has his eyes on a few bills, including one that would make casino gambling legal in Texas, which is one of the few states that still bars this practice.
“This may be the year that Texas passes casino gambling,” he said.