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What to expect from the 2023 Texas legislative session

Julia Reihs / KUT

There’s just over a week left before the start of the 2023 Texas Legislative session. Property taxes, gun control and the power grid are among the top issues on the agenda for state lawmakers.

To take a closer look at what to expect, the Standard was joined by political journalists Niki Griswold, state politics reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, and James Barragán, politics reporter for the Texas Tribune. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: This could be a very exciting session. I’m curious how much you see this session being a contrast with the previous legislative session, which went into several overtimes. James?

James Barragán: If, in 2020, Republicans felt like they had a mandate to go and push all the social conservative legislation that they felt the voters wanted, I don’t see how this will be any different. They’ve grown their majorities in both the House and in the Senate. So, I think we’ll probably expect to see another pretty conservative session.

That was the thing about the previous legislative session. There seemed to be a lot of socially conservative hot button issues. How much do you think that this legislative session is going to differ from the previous session, Niki? 

Niki Griswold: From what I’ve seen so far. I think the so-called culture war issue that will really take center stage this legislative session is surrounding LGBTQ rights and also education —how curriculum on the topics of race and sexuality can be discussed in the classroom.

We’ve already seen a number of bills filed to target the rights of transgender children, as well as battles in the classroom and in libraries over what books should be made available to children, with a lot of focus being on removing subject matter that validates LGBTQ identities. So, I think we’ll have to see how much of a focus that issue is this session versus the more bread and butter issues of lowering property taxes and tackling public school funding.

The bread and butter issues may well collide with these other culture war issues. I’m thinking back to a couple of sessions in which the so-called bathroom bill emerged, and then there was a push back from corporations and businesses out of concern that it might hurt Texas economically if lawmakers were to move forward. Do you think we’re going to see anything like that emerge, Niki? 

Niki Griswold: It’s funny. Texas does pride itself on being a very business friendly state and hands off government when it comes to the economy. But we did see that fight play out a little bit during the pandemic over vaccine and mask mandates, with the governor pulling back on efforts to require mask mandates.

We did see some businesses push back against the state’s pretty extreme abortion ban. But so far, the economy is still booming. We still have plenty of industries focusing on expanding their presence in Texas or moving here to do so. So, I don’t know how much of an empty threat it is when businesses say they will be taking their business elsewhere if Texas lawmakers pursue these really conservative policies.

Judging by the $27 billion budget surplus, business has been pretty good in Texas. There are a lot of interests across the Lone Star State wanting a little piece of that action. How do you see that playing out, James? 

James Barragán: Yeah, it’s a $27 billion surplus. Actually, Comptroller Glenn Hegar said that it might be more. The big thing is property taxes. He wants it spent on that. The governor has said he wants half of it spent on that. But the House Speaker says, “hold on, wait a minute, maybe we should spend it on infrastructure, a one time expenditure, rather than having to use it over and over and over our property taxes.”

I expect that to be a big fight and that may lead to some horse trading on some of these socially conservative issues and the bread and butter issues that we’re talking about.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick outlined his legislative priorities back in December. Property tax relief is high on his agenda, as are electric grid fixes and border security. Do you think his agenda is going to line up with the governor’s and that of the House Speaker? Do we know who the House Speaker is going to be yet, James? 

James Barragán: We know who’s the current speaker, but we know that Representative Tony Tinderholt has mounted a challenge. Frankly, some people do see this as a check to see how supportive the House is of Speaker Dade Phelan. It looks like he’s got the support. The Republican caucus voted almost unanimously to support Speaker Phelan. But there are some of the more conservative legislators who say, “hey, we’ve got to go further, we’ve got to do more.” We’ll find out on that first day of the legislative session, if Phelan gets a second session with the gavel.

Niki, do you see any link between the governor, the lieutenant governor and the incumbent Speaker Dade Phelan? Do you detect any tension or any wiggle room among those three? 

Niki Griswold: I think the biggest difference between the lieutenant governor’s priorities for this session and the governor’s priorities is just how to make that property tax relief happen. Gov. Abbott has made it very clear he wants the legislature to spend half of that budget surplus on lowering property taxes for Texas homeowners. But the lieutenant governor has pushed back on that. He’s not supportive of busting the constitutional spending cap to achieve that and is more interested in other funding and budget workarounds to make property tax relief happen.

The House Speaker has indicated he is a little bit more interested in using that budget surplus for one time investments such as improving infrastructure in the state. That budget surplus is not a sustainable source of funding. So, if the governor were to get his way, it would be a one time only property tax relief for Texas homeowners. I think the big battle will be over those dollars and how to effectively spend that money while still achieving the big priorities, including property tax relief and border security.

James, is there any chance we’re going to go into overtime in this legislative session like we did the last one?

James Barragán: There’s always that possibility. It’s too early to tell right now. You mentioned the electric grid and the lieutenant governor did say he wants more fixes on that. He did say during a press conference a couple of weeks ago that he doesn’t see himself going home at the end of the spring unless there have been more changes. So, there is that possibility.

Niki, what do you think? 

Niki Griswold: The lieutenant governor has a lot of power in the state legislature. If he doesn’t feel like one of his priorities might make it across the finish line, he does have the power to hold things up and make sure that the governor can’t get his priorities passed as well. I think we’ll have to see how the dynamic between the big three looks as lawmakers start going to committee hearings.

If you’re a Democrat in Texas, what are your expectations for the coming year? Where do you see politics headed? 

James Barragán: Well, I think it’s the same conundrum they’ve been in for two plus decades at this point. They go into this legislative session thinking, “defense, defense, defense.” How can I kill off bills that are bad for me and for my constituents? How can I do some deals, make some trades here for legislation? The reality is that Republicans hold the majority in both houses of the legislature, and that’s the way things go.

Do you think we’re going to see this continued battle between the state leadership and leaders of some of the big cities, Niki? 

Niki Griswold: I absolutely think that is going to be top of mind. Local control versus state government control has been played out for many sessions and I anticipate the same for this session. At the end of the day, I think the Texas legislature also prides itself on allowing for more bipartisan cooperation than you might see in D.C. So, I think there is some overlap in terms of interests for both parties. I’ve heard from plenty of Democrats that they see room for cooperation when it comes to public education funding. I think Democrats are going to be focusing on the issues where they can maybe wrangle some bipartisan support and like James said, play defense on the other issues.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.