Here's what's still being decided at the Legislature that could affect your life
By now, you’ve probably heard that the Texas Legislature wrapped up its regular session on Monday — and that, mere hours later, the governor called state lawmakers back for a special session.
The 88th Legislature was, to say the least, a very eventful session. Now, Texas lawmakers are gearing up for what looks to be a long summer spent debating property taxes, border legislation, education policy, impeachment and cross-chamber bickering.
Here’s what you know as we head into the next few months.
There are a few things to know about Texas special sessions compared to the state’s regular, every-other-year legislative sessions.
First, the governor can technically call one whenever he wants, but they most often occur near sine die.
“If for some reason the governor decides that he or she isn't happy with what they've accomplished, they have the power to convene a special session,” explained Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Part of what makes special sessions “special” is that there are more limitations on what can be discussed within them.
“What's really different is that the Legislature may only consider the bills — the issues — that the governor deems important or a priority,” Deen said. “And so the governor really has the power to control what the Legislature does.”
There are two items on the agenda for this first special session: border policy and property taxes.
(You may have heard the Texas House already wrapped up their business for special session, round one. More on that in a bit.)
Gov. Greg Abbott said he called this current special session for two reasons. The first was to pass cuts to property taxes — and to make sure those cuts happen in a very specific way.
On Monday, Abbott directed lawmakers to use their legislative overtime to curb property taxes “solely by reducing the school district maximum compressed tax rate.”
Although reducing property taxes was a goal shared this year by the Texas House and Senate, their exact approaches to lowering these taxes has been a contentious subject.
The Texas Senate favored a method that would prioritize exemptions for homeowners.
“The Senate has really focused on increasing the homestead exemption, which is the amount of money that a homeowner can basically deduct from the value of their property taxes before paying taxes,” explained Joshua Blank of The Texas Politics Project.
The House prefers a different method: compression (If you don’t know what that means, you’re not alone. That question came up a lot during the regular session). Basically, compression is about controlling the growth of taxes on all property over time. That’s different from homestead exemptions, which remove a fixed amount of a home’s value from taxation.
“Dealing with compression is about growth and property taxes,” Blank said. “(It’s) trying to rein in, essentially, the slope of that curve and make it a little bit more palatable for people.”
The Texas House wasn’t in special session for long. They got started Tuesday morning, passed a property tax bill that uses the compression method, and gaveled out Tuesday evening without taking up the Senate’s homestead-exemption-favoring property tax relief bills.
Abbott responded to the snub in a statement.
“The Texas House is the only chamber that passed a property tax cut bill that is germane to the special session that I called to provide Texans with property tax relief,” Abbott said.
Conflict between chambers aside, Blank says it’s important to keep the implications of tax changes in mind.
“I think that gets lost in this discussion a lot — that when you're talking about property taxes, you're actually also talking about public school finance and how that system operates,” Blank said.
The second issue that Gov. Abbott called lawmakers back for is border security.
Abbott’s special session call asks for legislation “increasing or enhancing the penalties for certain criminal conduct involving the smuggling of persons or the operation of a stash house.”
Blank said that border security bills are generally something that the Republican party agrees on.
“In Texas politics, there's almost no reason for a Republican elected official, especially a statewide elected official, not to bring up immigration and the border and illegal immigration in particular,” Blank said.
The House quickly passed a bill Tuesday increasing the penalty for human trafficking and operating stash houses.
The legislation also increases the mandatory minimum sentence for these crimes to 10 years.
It now heads to the Senate — which reconvenes Friday — for a vote.
Maybe another special session
It’s also likely that this won’t be the last special session we see over the summer.
Outstanding issues from the regular session that lawmakers hoped to resolve include teacher pay, school vouchers and the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton
Lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have created pay raises for teachers in the regular session. School vouchers, a particularly controversial proposal, were grafted onto the big teacher pay bill.
Blank said this contributed to the demise of teacher pay increases.
“The House said we're not going to pass that and that's why the teacher pay increase also died along with it,” he said.
Earlier this year, Gov. Abbott made a push for a school voucher program, saying he wouldn’t hesitate to call lawmakers back if his preferred proposals didn’t pass.
Deen said she thinks he’ll be true to his word.
“If he does call a special session about education, it's likely to be about the vouchers component of the bills that were debated during the regular session,” she said.
It’s less clear whether teacher pay raises would be included on the governor’s list.
“The question really becomes, what has Governor Abbott put on that special session call? Is it focused solely on vouchers? Is it a focus on vouchers and teacher pay, or something else?” Blank said.
With this Legislature, he said it’s hard to make solid predictions.
“There's really no way at this point to tell what the Legislature is going to do, given that they haven't been able to group agree over the last 140 days," he said.
On Saturday, Attorney General Ken Paxton was impeached by the Texas House on charges of inappropriate conduct with a political donor.
This is only the third time in all of Texas history that a high-ranking government official is being impeached, raising some big questions for the lawmakers running his trial.
Paxton has already been impeached in the House, meaning he is suspended from his duties as attorney general. Next, he’ll have a yet-to-be-scheduled trial in the Senate, where the lieutenant governor will act as judge and the senators will act as the jury.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick highlighted the importance of the Senate’s role at a press conference on Tuesday.
“This is very serious,” Patrick said. “These are very serious people and the Senate is going to do our job in a professional way.”
Ultimately, whether Paxton stays in office depends on the results of the Senate trial.
Since it’s been over 100 years since the last major trial in the Senate, there is little precedent for what that’s all going to look like.
Paxton will also be the first Texas official to be tried by a body that includes his spouse. His wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, has yet to say whether or not she’ll take part in her husband’s trial.
That’s something we should keep an eye on, Deen said.
“I think just human nature, folks are going to be interested to see what Senator Angela Paxton does,” she said. “She's required to be there, but will she recuse herself in the vote?”
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