Beginning of the Texas Legislature- What's Your Point?

- This week's panel: Jessica Colon - Republican strategist, Nyanza Davis Moore - Democratic Political Commentator Attorney,   Neal Dikeman- Libertarian, former candidate for U.S. Senate,  Antonio Diaz- writer, educator and radio host,  Tomaro Bell – Super Neighborhood leader,  Matt Murphy- Republican and former Houston City Council candidate, talk about the goals of the Texas 86th Legislature.

 

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Legislature opens with Republicans having smaller majorities in both chambers as a result of electoral defeats, which suggests that hot-button social issues could take a back seat to such matters as fixing the state's flawed school finance system, cutting property taxes and paying for Hurricane Harvey recovery.

Here's what to watch for when the session begins on Tuesday:

NEW HOUSE SPEAKER

For years, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and top conservatives in the Senate he oversees blamed moderate Republican House Speaker Joe Straus for blocking bills championed by the tea party and other activists. Straus, who held the post since 2009, has retired but is being replaced by Dennis Bonnen, a veteran Republican who was a key lieutenant of the previous speaker.

If Bonnen sticks to a more business-minded conservativism favored by Straus, that could lead to new clashes with Patrick. So far, though, the two have played nice. In a joint statement in November, Patrick said working with Bonnen should "lead to better and bold policy" while Bonnen called chamber unity his "utmost goal."

PROPERTY TAX CUTS VS. SCHOOL FUNDING

Gov. Greg Abbott is promising to cut property taxes. But that may be impossible without tackling how Texas pays for public schools, which depend heavily on local property taxes.

Something's got to give. Or, more likely given the Legislature's history, this session could come and go without major headway on either issue.

Both chambers were unable to compromise on competing property tax proposals and ended 2017 largely empty-handed. Meanwhile, the all-Republican state Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the school finance system was deeply flawed but also minimally constitutional, sparing lawmakers from being forced to devise a fix.

Longtime Republican Rep. Charlie Geren has proposed a constitutional amendment mandating that the state cover half of all public school costs, up from the less than 40 percent currently. That could drastically reduce local property tax burdens, but would also mean having to find billions more for education elsewhere in the state budget.

HARVEY RECOVERY

State lawmakers adjourned their special session on Aug. 15, 2017, 10 days before Harvey hit Texas. Since then, the federal government has steered billions to the state for recovery while Texas has spent comparatively little.

The rainy day fund is expected to be worth $15 billion, but lawmakers already have set limits, meaning only about half of it likely can be spent. How much of that will go on post-Harvey expenses remains to be seen - and every penny could spark ferocious debate.

BORDER SECURITY

Texas has spent $800 million in each of its last two budget cycles on border security and may do so again, as a fight over funding on the issue that has shut down the federal government for the foreseeable future hasn't sparked as much state-level derision.

The Legislature has instead battled over immigration policy, especially last session while approving the nation's toughest anti-"sanctuary cities" law. Another major immigration crackdown isn't expected this session, though there could be a renewed push to repeal a law that passed with bipartisan support in 2001 offering in-state tuition at Texas universities for some students in the country illegally.

BATHROOM BILL

A bathroom bill requiring transgender Texans to use public bathrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates was the most contentious issue of the 2017 session, prompting the NFL and some of the nation's most powerful companies to threaten to boycott Texas should it pass.

After the measure failed during the regular session, Abbott revived it during the special session only to watch it die again . Now the governor says the issue is no longer on his agenda and no lawmaker has yet filed legislation on it for 2019 -though they have until March 8 to do so and some conservative activists are clamoring to try again.

MARIJUANA

In 2015, Texas legalized the use of a low-THC cannabis oil to treat "intractable epilepsy" but the state's restrictive distribution laws mean fewer than 600 out of 150,000 potentially eligible Texas patients have purchased it .

There will be efforts this session to expand who can qualify for use under that law, and now that nearly two-thirds of U.S. states have legalized some form of marijuana - including Texas' conservative neighbors Arkansas and Oklahoma - advocates see chances for an opening. But proposals calling for broader legalization almost certainly remain unattainable.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas' last legislative session ended with one lawmaker threatening to shoot another after reporting Hispanic protesters to immigration agents, and corporate giants from Amazon to the NFL issuing warnings over a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people.

More than a year later, comes a test: whether a humbling 2018 for Texas Republicans will soften one of the most conservative statehouses in the country.

The Texas Legislature returns Tuesday, and unlike places such as Colorado and Minnesota where Democrats seized control of legislative chambers in November's midterm elections, Republicans remain firmly in power. They're ringing in a 20th consecutive year of controlling every statewide office. But they also took their licks: Democrats flipped 14 seats in the Legislature, closing the gap.

Beto O'Rourke's star-making challenge against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz at the top of the ticket propelled the upsets, igniting his own White House prospects and leaving Texas Republicans wobbled after their worst election in a generation.

Now after years of the Texas Capitol playing host to some of the nation's biggest fights over abortion, immigration and anti-LGBT laws, some legislators in both parties foresee the midterm results and 2020's high stakes as curbing the appetite for divisive bills that derailed past sessions and turned off voters in the state's booming big cities.

The party in power after the 2020 election will draw new voting maps - an upper hand Republicans used last time to carve Texas into a 101-49 House supermajority in 2011. That advantage has since shrunk to 83-67.

"I think the voters made it clear what issues they want us focused on," said Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, who held onto his suburban district near Dallas, where the GOP lost five House seats. "Their message to Republicans, at least, was: Don't compromise your values and your principles and beliefs, but focus on the big aspirational issues that keep Texas strong for a generation to come."

During Texas' most recent legislative session in 2017, Leach supported a contentious bill that would have required transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. The bill ultimately failed amid a backlash from Fortune 500 companies.

Now, Leach says, "I have not had anyone tell me" that issue needs to be a priority.

Across the U.S., Democrats picked up more than 330 statehouse seats in November, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Other states where Republicans absorbed big losses while maintaining legislative power include Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Already in Texas, there are hints of less turbulence on the eve of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's second term. Like many states, public school funding is the biggest issue singled out by both parties. Paying to help rebuild the Texas coast in the aftermath of 2017's Hurricane Harvey, the nation's most destructive storm since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is another task.

Of course, calls for bipartisanship and getting to the unflashy business of state governance ring eternal at the start of every legislative session. And some Republicans lawmakers had signaled to audiences of Texas conservative activists before the midterms that they would continue pushing bills on social issues, which would likely rekindle opposition with gay rights groups and big businesses.

The Texas Legislature is only at work for five months every two years, but reliably packs drama and spectacle into such a short amount of time. In 2003, Democrats fled the state to a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma to break quorum and stop a redistricting bill that cost them seats. A decade later, then-Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis staged a 13-hour filibuster to temporarily block a sweeping anti-abortion law, propelling her to a failed run for governor.

The last session saw Texas Republicans mostly at war with themselves. Abbott demanded the "bathroom bill," though opponents included moderate House speaker, who is now leaving office.

All the while, Texas was passing one of the nation's toughest crackdowns on "sanctuary cities," allowing police to ask people during routine stops whether they're in the U.S. illegally. Tensions over the bill spilled into chaos on the session's final day, when Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Latino protesters in the House gallery. Democratic state Rep. Poncho Nevarez angrily confronted Rinaldi, who later wrote on Facebook that he had warned Nevarez that he would "shoot him in self-defense."

Rinaldi lost re-election to his Dallas-area district last year, and Navarez - re-elected to a fourth term in his district along the border with Mexico- says Republicans who push divisive bills this time do so at their own electoral risk.

"I think it's going to be different. We went down a real dark path last session," Nevarez said.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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