ISSUES TO WATCH
With a predicted shortfall that promises to top $4 billion, the new state budget will have to go on a diet, even though Abbott and legislative leaders hope that Trump’s promises to bolster federal border-security initiatives and curb skyrocketing healthcare costs could save the state billions. Less money will affect passage of proposals with a big pricetag, including franchise tax reductions and tuition reforms, they agree.
Though no one seems to be able to clearly define exactly what a sanctuary city is, even how many there are in Texas, Senate leaders are intent on banning them. once and for all, and so the passage of legislation looks good, especially with Donald Trump’s tough stance on illegal immigration. Despite lukewarm support in the House, Abbott has listed this issue as a priority.
The issue of requiring photo IDs to vote in Texas has been in the courts almost ever since it was first enacted by lawmakers in 2011, and this new attempt to bolster the current controversial law will again face heated opposition from advocates who insist it intentionally suppresses Latino and African-American voting. With the GOP in control of both legislative chambers, the chances of passage look good.
The Texas Privacy Act would bar Texans from going in public-building restrooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificate. While conservative Republican supporters insist it’s not akin to North Carolina’s highly controversial law, opponents -- including business groups that say it would cost the state $8.5 billion in lost business -- are not buying that line. Look for a fight in the Senate and a likely roadblock in the House.
Fetal tissue burials and abortion
As the latest front line in the fight over abortion, bills to increase criminal penalties for buying and selling human fetal tissue and to ban partial-birth abortions in Texas will be a flash point for controversy. No surprise, as these issues are the latest battleground between pro-life and abortions-rights activists. But at a time when top state officials say they support the new laws, give these issues a good chance of passage -- even though that could change, if an Austin federal judge considering the legality of a state rule on disposing of fetal tissue ends up tossing out the controversial rule.
After more than two decades of reforms designed to curb chronic, systemic problems, state officials have designated this issue a top priority who have designated a fix for the problems as a top priority -- perhaps an emergency that would allow expedited legislative action. Whatever the fix, it will be costly -- a tab that will affect the strained budget, in what already has some lawmakers suggesting the state should use some of its Rainy Day Fund to pay for a permanent fix.
READ MORE: Our coverage of the state’s foster-care system<style>
After a messy attempt at ethics reform two years ago, even though Abbott had made the issue a priority, the Legislature this year will get another shot at plugging loopholes in current campaign-finance and ethics laws that are big enough to drive a truck through. Asking the legislature to impose new limits on its ethical behavior has historically proven akin to trying to thread an elephant through a needle. Expect a lot of talk, but most likely little significant reform short of some scandal.
If abortion will be one lightning rod, this issue will be just as contentious between conservatives who say it will let parents get around failing schools and the public-school lobby insists it is just a ruse to kill public education. Call it school choice or vouchers, the pitch to pass this legislation will focus on allowing parents to have the option to child to the best school they believe is best for them -- part of national sentiment that became part of the dialogue in the presidential campaign last fall. Look for alternatives to have the best chances of getting approved: Educational scholarships and special educational funds that parents can use to pick a school of their choice.
Property tax reform
Texans are paying the sixth highest property taxes in the nation, so who could hate legislation that would cut those taxes? Right? Start with counties and cities and school districts and local taxing entities that are forced to up their rates everytime the state cut’s theirs. This has been a big fight in the past, and will again be contentious this spring. Bottom line, according to legislative leaders, will probably be a new law that cuts taxes, but for which local taxpayers may see no real relief, especially in a year when the state budget will be super tight.
Two Texas Supreme Court decisions in 2015 carved huge exceptions in Texas’ sunshine law that restrict the ability of taxpayers to find out how local and state governments are spending their money. And while open-government advocates say the solution should be an easy legislative fix, with support from city and county trade associations, economic-development associations across Texas say the exceptions should be preserved. And that could slow or stop the changes.
PLAYERS TO KNOW
Gov. Greg Abbott
In his second legislative session as governor, the genial former Texas Supreme Court justice is widely expected to play much the same role as he did two years ago: lawyerly low-key, quietly working behind the scenes to get what he wants, and to block legislation that he doesn’t.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
As the most flamboyant and outspoken of Texas top leaders, the former Houston talk-show host clearly wants to lead passage of a conservative agenda featuring bills that promise to pass the Senate, after some arm-twisting, but likely may hit a brick wall in the House. Look for him to be no shrinking violet.
House Speaker Joe Straus
Straus’ reasoned and low-key approach to leadership in the House has served him well, as it did eons of speakers before him. Watch for him to let House leaders take care of their business, with some gentle guidance from him at time, always remembering that he needs to protect the interests of his members.
Jane Nelson, Senate Finance Committee Chair
As the highest ranking Republican in the GOP-controlled Senate, the the first woman to head the budget-writing committee, watch for her to be a penurious nitpicker on spending issues, as she has been in the past, asking a lot of questions and demanding accountability from state agencies. The Senate will lead the budget-writing this time, so a fiscally conservative document is expected.
House Appropriations Committee
The large committee, with a chairman yet to be named after the retirement of Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, and Vice-Chair Sylvester Turner, a Democrat who became Houston mayor, can be expected to curb any impulses the Senate might have to trim state service too severely or to cut taxes too much in a tight budget year. Despite differences, both the House and Senate budget writers are conservative in their approach -- though their definitions of that term might differ slightly.
EYE ON THE CAPITOL
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