The 86th Texas Legislature opens today in Austin, and lawmakers have just 140 working days to tackle some of the state's most pressing problems. Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Speaker-Presumptive Dennis Bonnen have yet to identify any "must pass" legislation. But there are at least four topics that will take up a lot of oxygen before the regular session ends on May 27:
- State budget: Passing a budget is the Legislature's one constitutionally-mandated job. Like most states, Texas has a balanced budget requirement, which means by law, it can only spend what it collects in taxes and fees. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimates that will come to $119.1 billion over the next two-year budget cycle, which is an 8.1 percent increase compared to the cycle that ends August 31. Lawmakers have to decide how to divide up that money in order to cover healthcare, education, public safety, and a host of other responsibilities.
- School finance reform: Texas' public school finance system requires property-wealthy school districts to share revenue with the state, which then reallocates the money to property-poor school districts. The system is known as "recapture" or "Robin Hood." It's a growing problem for some districts, including the Houston Independent School District, which are classed as wealthy but include many poor neighborhoods. At the same time, the state's portion of funding for public education has been declining for years, forcing school districts to make up the balance through property taxes. Both Democrats and many Republican lawmakers are determined to overhaul the system this year, after failing to do so in 2017.
- Property tax reform: Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick made this issue a cornerstone of their reelection campaigns last year, both men arguing that rising property values are causing homeowners' tax bills to skyrocket. Abbott wants to limit any increase in property taxes to 2.5 percent a year. Anything above that would have to be approved by two-thirds of the voters. Texas counties, cities, and school districts rely on property taxes as their sole source of revenue. Many, notably Harris County under former Judge Ed Emmett, staunchly opposed such revenue caps in past legislative sessions.
- Harvey relief/flood control: In the wake of Harvey, Congress allocated tens of billions of dollars to Texas for disaster relief, flood control infrastructure, and flood mitigation. Federal law requires local governments to come up with some of the money in order to unlock the rest. Houston, Harris County, and local governments along the Gulf Coast have been ponying up matching funds. Many of their lawmakers are demanding the state tap the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, better known as the "Rainy Day Fund," to help as well.
Lieutenant Governor Patrick has reserved the first 30 Senate bill numbers for priority legislation yet to be released. The first 20 House bill numbers are also reserved for the same reason. And Governor Abbott is likely to identify a number of "emergency items" for the Legislature when he delivers his State of the State address in a few weeks.