Summer is Coming: where is the Texas Legislature on Texans’ top priorities?

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Texas has less than a month left until sine die, the final day of the regular session of the Texas Legislature which falls on May 27, and Thursday marks the deadline for bills to be heard out of committee in the House. Many of the priorities of Texans are at risk of being neglected and postponed for another two years when legislators meet again unless a special session is called by the Governor.

Here’s where we are on some of those very important issues:

Medicaid Expansion

This year had a record number of bills filed to expand Medicaid in some form or another, be it through traditional expansion, counties opting into expansion funds, or a ”Texas solution” which calls for a block grant from the federal government. The only vote made so far on this issue was a budget amendment by Rep. John Bucy III (D-Austin), which failed on a near party-line vote. The only other movement on this issue was a committee hearing on a bill by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), which not only expands Medicaid but enshrines the protections of the Affordable Care Act such as for pre-existing conditions into state law. This was the first committee hearing for a Medicaid expansion bill in three sessions. All expansion bills have been stalled in committee. These bills need to clear committees by Tuesday to have a chance at becoming law.

At a smaller level, there has been some traction on expanding Texas Medicaid maternity coverage to mothers to a full year postpartum in an effort to curb maternal mortality rate. Several bills have been filed but only two such bills have come out of committee in the House. Their deadline to be heard on the House floor before it gets killed for the session is Thursday.

Bills to extend children’s Medicaid coverage to address the abhorrently high uninsured rate among Texas children have yet to pass either chamber. The House version is stalled in Calendars Committee and has until Thursday to be heard on the floor before it dies. The Senate bill, which has a later deadline this month before it dies, has not yet received a committee hearing.

School Safety

Several school safety bills have only passed one chamber and are awaiting committee hearings in the other chamber. Most bills are focused on increasing funding for resiliency and improving and increasing mental health services at schools, ranging from increasing counselors to expanding telemedicine. Several plans to expand the school marshall program, which arms educators, passed the Senate, two of which received committee hearings in the House this week and one which already got approved. Other bills have stalled committee in favor of priority bills of the Speaker and Lt. Governor going forward.

Medical Marijuana

Two bills to expand medical marijuana have gotten out of committee, including one by the author of the first medical marijuana bill to pass in Texas. Both are slated for debate Monday. The rest are stalled in committee in both chambers. A bill to reduce penalties for marijuana possession but keeps possession a criminal offense passed the House. However, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says it’s “dead in the water.” It appears there is no appetite for medical marijuana in the upper chamber either, but one of the House bills’ authors says otherwise.

Property Taxes and School Funding

On the issue of property taxes and school funding, the Texas Legislature is fielding several different proposals on lowering property taxes, the method of funding schools, and the amount the state sends to schools.

The House and Senate appear to agree on spending $9 billion more on public education, above enrollment growth, with around $3 billion of that going to property tax relief contingent on what gets passed this session. Currently, the school finance bill, HB 3, was voted out of the Senate Education Committee after only one hearing with public testimony. It is slated for debate on the Senate floor on Monday. In a recently released fiscal note, the Senate’s version of HB 3 increases the price tag of the school finance reform to $15.5 billion.

Regarding where this funding is coming from and how property taxes are going to be lowered, it doesn’t seem both chambers have agreed on how exactly to do that. At the beginning of the session, the “Big Three” came together and supported a property tax reform bill which included a 2.5 percent cap on property tax revenue. While some politicians have claimed this would bring relief, it will not lower anyone’s tax bills but only lower the growth of future property tax rates. Appraisals, which drive high property tax bills more than rates do, are not capped; however, there is more transparency and accountability in property appraisal and appeal process in the bills. The proposal, after passing the Senate last month, was voted out of the House last week with an important contingency provision tying its passage to HB 3. The latest version changes the rollback rate for city and county governments’ property tax rates to 3.5 percent.

Later in the session, the “Big Three” announced their support of a 1 cent sales tax increase to buy down property taxes. The reaction from both sides of the aisle suggests there is not much of an appetite from Democrats or even some Republicans to sell that plan to their constituents. Nonetheless, HJR 3 was voted out of committee last Wednesday night and is slated for debate Tuesday. The Big Three reiterated their confidence in the plan’s passage in a press conference last Friday. In the bill’s original version, 20 percent of the revenue would go to public education and 80 percent towards property tax relief. The committee’s substitute changed it to 100 percent of the revenue earmarked for property tax relief. The Legislative Budget Board recently released an equity note on the bill indicating only the wealthiest people in the state would benefit from a sales tax swap.

Other proposals include an increase in the homestead exemption, ranging from $10,000 in the Senate to $25,000 in the House led by the House Democratic Caucus. Neither proposal cleared their respective committees but the low bill number for the Senate’s plan indicates it as a priority for the Lt. Gov. The Senate’s plan is expected to take $750 million in existing severance tax revenue from the Rainy Day Fund to make up for the losses to school revenue in the upcoming biennium if the homestead exemption is increased. This would only go into effect if voters support the constitutional amendment.

Other proposals have stalled in committee, including Rep. Charlie Geren’s (R-Fort Worth) plan to constitutionally require the state to pay its fair share of school funding by paying at least 50 percent.

One proposal to raise online sales tax collection following the Supreme Court Wayfair decision has passed both chambers.

Ethics Reform

If past is prologue, this Texas Legislature is on track to not get much done on ethics reform. The Texas Ethics Commission keeps track of all ethics reform bills for this session. According to a Reform Austin analysis, nearly 70 ethics reforms bills have been filed in both chambers, half of which have not received a committee hearing, covering campaign finance laws, lobbyist disclosures and increasing government transparency.

The majority of ethics reform bills were filed in the House whereas a little more than half the number were filed in the Senate, with 44 and 25. Of those, eight are still pending in House committees, seven more have yet to be heard on the House floor. On the Senate side, 13 bills have yet to be heard in Senate committees and two bills have yet to be heard on the Senate floor. However, there is still a chance for those bills to get passed since May 21 is the deadline for Senate bills to be heard in the House before they are dead.

One important ethics reform highlighted prior to the session is the lack of transparency regarding lobbyists who also act as foreign agents. A bill carried by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) would improve lobbyist disclosure requirements to remedy. Capriglione’s bill is one of eight ethics reform bills which have passed the House and are awaiting Senate consideration.

Another important ethics reform is closing the special session fundraising loophole, which came up in the last session but was never resolved. Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) re-filed her bill, HB 786, addressing this issue, and it is currently stalled in committee. In the previous session and in the interim, the issue of the Governor’s ability to reward campaign contributors with plum appointments to state boards and commissions came up. Only one bill, by Rep. Terry Meza (D-Irving), was filed this session to remedy this ethical issue. If neither bill clears committee and gets heard on the House floor by Thursday, they will both receive the same fate as the last session.

The Senate has passed 10 ethics reform bills so far, including SB 13, a priority bill of the Lt. Governor which seeks to close the “revolving door” between public officials and lobbyists, and another controversial one, which makes it more difficult for local governments, public universities and school districts to hire lobbyists and potentially be subject to lawsuits for noncompliance.

Minimum Wage

Several bills and resolutions to raise the minimum wage were offered again this session. Only two bills received a committee hearing, both in the House. One was authored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), who also authored the original bill that tied Texas’ minimum wage to the federal rate, at the time, $7.25, ten years ago. Her bill calls for the minimum wage to increase to $10.10 whereas the other bill, by Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) calls for a $15 an hour minimum wage. Both were left pending after their hearings in late February. Another bill to allow local governments to pass minimum wage laws was left pending in committee last month. The House has until Tuesday to send any of these bills to the House floor for second reading.

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