Texas

What To Expect From The 85th Texas Legislature

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus bring dueling priorities on social issues to the State Capitol. Lean coffers will make it difficult to pay for existing programs, let alone anything new.

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The 85th Texas Legislature opens today in Austin. Lawmakers have already filed well over 1,300 bills, with more on the way. That's a lot of ground to cover in a session that lasts fewer than five months. For a preview, Eddie Robinson spoke with News 88.7 politics and government reporter Andrew Schneider.

Interview Highlights:

What's the first order of business?

"There's always lot of basic housekeeping, administrative stuff to take care of at the start of any session. There's also the State of the State Address coming up, where Governor [Greg] Abbott will tell legislators what he sees as some of the most pressing issues that need to be addressed. That's tentatively set for January 31, but the date's not yet official. And then there's overriding question of the budget. The comptroller just issued his two-year revenue forecast. That's going to play a big role in figuring out what the state can afford to do over the next two years.”

What are some of the major issues legislators will be tackling this session?

"Well we have a few guideposts from what Lieutenant Governor [Dan] Patrick and House Speaker [Joe] Straus have said over the past few months. Patrick laid out more than two dozen ‘top priorities.' Some of the big ones include tax reform, particularly slowing the growth of property taxes. That's popular with homeowners, not so much with local governments that get the largest part of their revenue from property taxes. He's talking about new abortion restrictions, tightening immigration enforcement, promoting school choice. Straus is talking more about issues like getting more money for foster care and Child Protective Services."

What about issues of particular importance to Houston?

"Straus says he wants to reform the state's school finance system. He says he'd like to end the system by which the state helps to fund poorer school districts by taking property tax money from wealthier ones, what's often called the ‘Robin Hood recapture system.' That's something Mayor [Sylvester] Turner was hoping for last year when he campaigned for a ‘No' vote on Proposition 1. Prop 1 was essentially a referendum on whether HISD would hand over the money to the state voluntarily. The ‘No' vote means the state can detach valuable commercial property from HISD and give it to another district.

"There's also a bill that would put Texas back at the center of the debate over LGBT rights, the so-called ‘bathroom bill.' That would bar transgender people from using the bathroom, locker room, changing facility, etc., of the gender with which they identify. It's a direct response to the defunct Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, as well as the transgender directive the Obama Administration came out with last year. Patrick says this is a must-pass. He says it's a matter of women's privacy and common sense. Straus says it's not as big an issue for him, although he's sensitive to the mood of his members. There's already been a lot of push-back on this one, not just from Democrats and LGBT groups but also from the business community. A lot of employers have said they're opposed to it, that it could discourage companies from doing business in the state. So this is by no means a sure thing.

"One other big issue for Houston is pension reform. Last year, Mayor Turner proposed a plan to overhaul the city's pension system. The [Houston] City Council passed a resolution in favor of it, but the Legislature has to sign off on the plan before it can go into effect.”

When should we expect to see the pace pick up in the session?

"Typically, things start to get serious early in March. From then on, we can probably expect to see bills passing in bursts, a bunch at a time, rather than in a steady stream. And then we can probably expect a lot of activity on the biggest bills at the end of May, before the regular session adjourns on May 29."

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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