The Texas state legislature will return in 2019 with a new house speaker, Democratic gains in both chambers and a message from voters. "I think the Senate got the same message that the House did, which is to focus on things that matter," said Rep. Diego Bernal of San Antonio at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Texas Tribune.
Over the course of the day of panels focused on the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers underscored the need to set aside the sorts of bills and discussions that won so much attention last session: the so-called bathroom bill, sanctuary city legislation and more. Instead, they said, constituents are looking for property tax relief, school finance reform and bills that respond to school safety concerns, long-running issues with the state's Department of Family and Protective Services, ongoing Hurricane Harvey relief and more.
First on many lawmakers' agendas? Public school finance. Sen. Kirk Watson, former mayor of Austin, said public education and its funding was the number one priority heading into the next legislative session during his panel discussion. On the heels of the midterm elections, Watson said he hopes the results put his colleagues in a "problem-solving mood" and noted, "We seem to be talking about priorities and how we do this together," more so than last session.
Of course, public school funding was on the agenda last session but divides between the Senate and House resulted in a compromised piece of legislation that injected significantly less in funding into the state's system. But the bill was a disappointment to many.
Now, with projections that the state will contribute even less than it has in the past thanks to rapidly increasing property tax revenue that school districts also depend on, stakeholders are hopeful for a fix. "If the formula is set up so that...the state's share goes down," said Watson, "we can fix that and we ought to fix that."
Recapture has also been a source of frustration for property-rich districts like the Houston Independent School District, which sends money back to the state and other districts because the district is considered property wealthy despite a large share of students classified as economically disadvantaged. "We're struggling in HISD," said Rep. Shawn Thierry. "We don't want to make those payments."
But there is potential for legislation to again fall short, warned some. "You can't start a school finance conversation with property tax relief," Bernal said, arguing that how potential legislation impacts classrooms and schools has less to do with the exact split between state and local funding and more to do with problems of underfunding or ineffective spending. "I think there is a moral obligation for the state to do more," said Bernal, "but I'm much more interested in the ways educators experience this." In another panel discussion, Rep. Rafael Anchia echoed some of Bernal's concerns. "What I fear about this session is that we’re really not going to do a reform that will drive more money to public schools, we will simply do a tax shift."
Also wrapped up in school finance discussions are questions of teacher pay and quality, special education funding and training and other issues.
"You can't fix school finance if you don’t fix property taxes because it's all intertwined," said Rep. Geanie Morrison. While policymakers await the recommendations of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, some see the same problem flagged by Bernal and Anchia: an over-emphasis on property tax relief, according to the Austin American-Statesman. While the commission's revenue working group has come up with a few plans to address property taxes, it's Gov. Greg Abbott's somewhat incomplete plan that seems the most likely to move ahead, writes the Statesman's Julie Chang.
Abbott would cap increases in school district property tax revenue at 2.5 percent per year. As property value grows in some areas, those school districts would need to decrease their tax rates, reining in property tax increases. The state would have to make up the difference to ensure school districts don’t lose funding. Abbott doesn’t say where that money would come from, however.
Last session's efforts to address property taxes didn't end well, due, in part, to differences between the House and Senate. There's already been legislation filed seeking to limit local property taxes and the expected new House speaker Rep. Dennis Bonnen was a key player in last session's property tax conversations.
But any property tax relief bills will have to come with some likely unpopular conversations. As Ross Ramsey notes for the Texas Tribune, "Given the way the state pays for public education — with a combination of local property taxes, and state and federal funding — the only ways to lower property taxes are to cut public education spending or to find money elsewhere to offset property tax cuts."
Abbott released his own school safety plan in the spring shortly after 10 people were killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School, and in August, he released a follow-up on the steps various districts and departments had already taken, including a 90 percent increase in public school employees who attended the Mental Health First Aid training courses over the summer compared to 2017. It was still only 1,705 public school employees in total.
Within the governor's plan are a number of items that the legislature would have to move on, among them the study of a so-called "red flag" law "to identify persons who are a danger to themselves or others and who either have access to or own firearms." The potential law would allow "law enforcement, a family member, school employee, or a district attorney to file a petition seeking the removal of firearms from a potentially dangerous person only after legal due process is provided," as outlined by the plan.
Foster Care and CPS
Last session changing Child Protective Services was an "emergency legislative priority," per the governor who called several new laws passed during the session "a need step" to ending the deaths of children in the care of the state. In a recent ruling in a 2011 lawsuit over the state's Department of Family and Protective Services underscored the need for further reform. In October, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again agreed that the system was putting children at risk, particularly through its "policies and practices toward caseload management" but it dialed back orders from U.S. District Judge Janis Jack's January decision that found that despite last session's moves, the department "demonstrated an unwillingness to take tangible steps to fix the broken system." But Jack went back in November and revised her initial order to fit with the 5th Circuit's October ruling. According to the Dallas Morning News, Jack wants more manageable caseloads, as well as these steps to be taken:
--- CPS' new sister agency, the Investigations Division, to more quickly look into allegations that an abused child in state-arranged foster care has suffered further maltreatment.
-- Clearer "lines of communication" on how such abuse is to be reported.
-- The department and its contractors to do a more thorough job of notifying a child's future foster parents and caregivers of confirmed abuse — especially sexual abuse — that occurred while the youngster was in state custody.
-- The department to submit, within 30 days of a final judgment, a plan to "remediate missing and nonexistent medical and mental health records" in children's electronic case files, following recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
-- And a separate state agency, the Health and Human Services Commission, would need to have enough residential child-care licensing inspectors to satisfy Jack that the state is actively searching patterns of violations by shoddy foster-care providers.
With a final judgment still pending but expected soon, legislators will likely take this issue up again in the session starting on January 8.
Hurricane Harvey Recovery
After some visible back and forth between Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Abbott about tapping the state's Rainy Day Fund following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, representatives from affected areas are hopeful they'll see support in the next legislative session. The fund is now at $12.5 billion and policymakers like Thierry would like to see some of that come back the Houston region in the form of some sort of aid package. Most of the $2.7 billion state price tag associated with recovery so far has been paid by the federal government, according to a legislative report, which included recommendations for Senate lawmakers not just for ongoing recovery but mitigation as well. Education was also considered in the report, which said that the state could "consider funneling $865 million" to Harvey-impacted schools, "although it makes clear that the Legislature is not legally obligated to do so," notes Kiah Collier in the Texas Tribune.
"We know that this is going to continue," said Thierry during the Tribune's panel discussion, about the potential for future storms on par with Harvey.
Cities versus State
And what would another legislative session in Texas be without some squabbling between cities and the state? Expect conversations around cities' ability to raise property taxes without voter approval, local paid sick leave ordinances and other issues, including a possible return to sanctuary cities, following the state's recent lawsuit against San Antonio.