Monday, January 09, 2017

Your guide to the 85th legislative session

Your guide to the 85th legislative session

Read about the top 10 issues to watch, the key players and Central Texas legislators

State legislators will convene in Austin this month for 140 days of grandstanding, deal-making, jawboning and, ultimately, lawmaking.
Coffers won’t be as flush as in recent years, thanks to low oil and gas prices. So, with a long legislative wish list, some spending items are bound to lose out.
Will Republican leaders get the business franchise tax cut they have been coveting? Will lawmakers revamp the school finance system and dedicate more money to public schools? Will the state’s troubled foster care system get the attention — and extra money — a federal judge says it needs? Will the Texas Department of Public Safety get $1 billion over two years for even more border security enforcement — or will President-elect Donald Trump’s border promises convince state lawmakers that state money is better spent elsewhere?
Meanwhile, socially conservative Republicans are preparing to face off against moderates within their party, as well as business leaders, over a transgender bathroom proposal. Conservatives are also pushing for school vouchers, even as moderate Republicans in the House seem lukewarm to the idea.
Amping up the pressure to score victories: Re-election campaigns around the corner for Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other state leaders.
Robert W. Gee
Top 10 Issues


Some of the hottest flash points in the coming legislative session probably will revolve around efforts by socially conservative Republicans to address gay and transgender rights.
One bill would repeal city ordinances that protect gay, lesbian and transgender residents from housing and employment discrimination. Other proposals would allow businesses, individuals and government employees to refuse to serve gay couples based on religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made passage of a bill to ban transgender-friendly bathrooms one of his top 20 priorities for 2017.
In addition to opposition from civil and gay rights groups, the proposals have drawn sharp criticism from the Texas Association of Business, a powerful lobby that recently released a study arguing that the GOP measures would put a severe crimp in the Texas economy. The association also formed a coalition to fight the measures that includes Apple, IBM, Intel and Celanese Corp.
Chuck Lindell


Probably one of the more difficult tasks that lawmakers will face this session is fixing the outdated and complicated formulas that dictate how the state funds public schools. In May, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the school finance system but said it was riddled with problems and Band-Aid fixes. Among the calls for changes to the system in the past and probably again this session are to tweak the funding formula to increase the money school districts receive to educate non-native English speakers and the basic amount of funding per student.
A more divisive issue than school funding appears to be school choice, a priority of Patrick’s. School choice refers to using state money to expand educational options such as private school and home schooling for students who leave public schools. School choice is likely to manifest in a bill that would give students a loaded debit card that they could use to pay for private school tuition, educational materials, tutors or other education-related services. Traditional school districts are fiercely opposed to the idea.
Lawmakers also are expected to tackle the rising number of improper relationships between teachers and students, as well as discontent about the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and how the tests are used to hold school districts and students accountable.
Julie Chang


The election of Trump has changed the game for how border and immigration issues will be handled in the next legislative session. Since 2014, Texas Republicans have been touting the state’s unprecedented border security program, which costs $800 million in the current two-year budget, as necessary because of the federal government’s failure to secure the southern border under President Barack Obama.
But with the election of Trump, who made illegal immigration the top issue of his campaign, many, including House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, are saying it might be time to tap the brakes on border spending.
That doesn’t mean the Legislature will be ignoring illegal immigration this session. Cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities, local jurisdictions that decline in some way to cooperate on federal immigration enforcement, is one of Abbott’s and Patrick’s top priorities.
Sean Collins Walsh


Problems continue to plague Child Protective Services and the foster care system. Since the last session, lawmakers have held several hearings to consider emergency fixes for the most pressing issues, including high caseworker turnover rates and high numbers of children who might have been in danger but were not seen by caseworkers in a timely manner.
Late last year, legislative leaders approved $150 million for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to hire more caseworkers and give them raises, among other initiatives.
But the Legislature probably will have to find more permanent solutions. A federal judge who has found part of the state’s foster care system unconstitutional could make state officials implement numerous changes in the upcoming year, including halting the use of foster group homes, reducing caseworkers’ caseloads and improving health care management for foster children.
Julie Chang


One session after open carry and campus carry bills dominated debate, most Republicans have less ambitious goals for expanding gun rights in 2017.
The exception is Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who wants to allow anyone to carry a legally owned firearm without having to obtain a state-issued license to carry it — a proposal known as constitutional carry. A similar effort went nowhere in 2015, but some of the most vocal gun rights advocates favor the proposal and plan to press hard for its passage.
Patrick has made eliminating the $140 fee to get a license to carry, and $70 renewal fee, one of his priority bills, and a separate bill would eliminate sales taxes on guns and hunting supplies on the last weekend of August.
Other proposals would let firefighters, emergency medical crews and other first responders carry handguns on the job and allow school trustees and superintendents to carry openly or have concealed handguns during school board meetings.
Some of the Legislature’s most conservative Republicans want to bar state agencies from enforcing any federal law that imposes restrictions on firearms, ammunition and accessories not found in state law, including background checks and registration requirements.
Chuck Lindell


After two legislative sessions in which the transportation focus was on generating billions of dollars more each year for highways — an effort that succeeded utterly for the Texas Department of Transportation — look for a swing toward policy this time.
TxDOT is up for sunset review in the 2017 session and will be defending itself against an initial report from the Sunset Advisory Commission staff knocking its readiness to properly spend all the new money coming its way. And sunset bills often evolve into legislative “Christmas trees,” with legislators using them to move forward other, stalled transportation legislation through amendments. So that bill will be worth watching.
But the highlight, particularly for Austin residents, should be an effort to take ride-hailing rules statewide. The city’s May rejection of an ordinance favored by Uber and Lyft, put forward after the Austin City Council passed rules requiring fingerprinting of drivers and other elements the companies opposed, led to the two companies turning off their apps in the city. The companies don’t much like ordinances in Houston and Corpus Christi either and have legislative allies pushing to override the locals.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, once again will try to ban the use of cellphones for talking and typing (although hands-free talking would be OK). Some of the same legislators enthused about a single statewide bill for ride-hailing will be more comfortable with local control on this one.
And lower-profile moves will be made to outlaw the use of cameras to enforce traffic signals, reform how TxDOT builds and operate tollways, and change or eliminate the controversial Driver Responsibility Program.
Ben Wear


With Republican leaders from Abbott on down opposed to legalizing marijuana, efforts to loosen the state’s drug laws face an insurmountable hurdle in the 2017 session.
That hasn’t stopped Democrats in both houses from filing proposals ranging from outright legalization — in the form of constitutional amendments allowing Texans to own, sell and grow marijuana for personal or medical use — to making possession of an ounce or less punishable with a $250 civil fine and no criminal record.
Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, is pressing to allow the medical use of marijuana for those with debilitating chronic conditions, including patients with cancer and muscular dystrophy and combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Opponents fear medical cannabis legislation could be a gateway bill to future liberalization of drug laws.
Meantime, a Republican who is gaining influence on criminal justice issues, Rep. James White of Hillister, filed a bill to create a specialty court program allowing first-time, low-level defendants charged with marijuana possession to avoid criminal penalties by entering an intervention program.
Chuck Lindell


In the 2015 legislative session, Abbott made ethics reform one of his biggest priorities, and the Legislature passed bills aimed at increasing transparency on Texas officials’ financial dealings. But Abbott ended up vetoing the bills after Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, tacked on amendments that would have widened the so-called spousal loophole that lets lawmakers forgo reporting some types of income and financial assets held in their spouses’ names.
Abbott, along with ethics watchdog groups, said the exemption would have created an enormous loophole in the state’s disclosure laws, weakening them overall despite the other measures in the bills.
In vetoing the bills, Abbott vowed to bring them back up again in the 2017 session. Since then, Abbott and other state leaders have said little about the issue, and ethics watchdogs are worried that the focus on improving transparency in state government has gone by the wayside.
Sean Collins Walsh


In the first session since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned abortion rules that would have left only nine clinics operating in Texas, Republicans will seek to enact additional regulations in 2017.
State health officials moved to oust Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid health provider in December, and the agency filed suit to block the move.
Patrick designated two abortion-related bills as priorities. One would ban abortion providers from donating fetal tissue for medical research and prohibit a practice some call partial birth abortion. A second bill would ban insurance coverage for abortions.
Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, wants to eliminate an exception that allows for third-trimester abortions for fetuses with “severe and irreversible abnormalities” that are incompatible with life outside the womb, while Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, has proposed a constitutional amendment “guaranteeing the right to life of unborn children and prohibiting abortion to the extent authorized under federal constitutional law.”
On the Democratic side, Rep. Donna Howard of Austin filed a bill to enact harsher penalties for those who assault abortion clinic employees or volunteers.
Chuck Lindell


The two-year state budget, which this year will be filed as Senate Bill 1, is the only bill the Legislature is required to pass every session. Doing so this year is expected to be much more difficult than it was in 2015, when flush state coffers gave lawmakers enough wiggle room to boost funding for favored programs while cutting taxes in the $209.4 billion budget.
Thanks to slumping oil and gas prices, which have driven down tax revenue, and demands to boost public education spending and fix scandal-plagued social service programs, it’s a different story this year. Adding fuel to the fire: This session will be the last before statewide elected officials, including Abbott and Patrick, are up for re-election in 2018.
Expect to see hard-line conservatives pushing for tax cuts clash with those who want to see the state’s limited resources go to cash-strapped social programs. Expect to see intense debate about how much the state needs to spend on public schools, programs for vulnerable children and border security. And, as always, expect to see posturing on all sides.
Sean Collins Walsh
Gov. Greg Abbott talks about the upcoming legislative session with reporters at the Capitol on Dec. 13, 2016. Jay Janner/American-Statesman

The Big Three offer contrasting brands of Republican leadership

They are the Big Three in Texas politics: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. The governor and lieutenant governor are elected statewide. The speaker is elected by the members of the House. This will be the second session for Abbott and Patrick, who were first elected in 2014 and are up for re-election in 2018. This will be the fifth session as speaker for Straus, R-San Antonio, tying the record for length of service.
In a state with big Republican majorities in the Legislature, and which last elected a Democratic to statewide office in 1994, the Big Three offer very different — sometimes contending and sometimes complementary — brands of Republican leadership.

Gov. Greg Abbott

The governorship in Texas is by design a weak office, with the powers typically concentrated with governors in other states spread among other statewide officials. But Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, filled every appointive office with loyalists and, by dint of his swagger, a couple of presidential runs, an indictment and such memorable moments as shooting a coyote while jogging, commanded center stage during his tenure.
Abbott is the most popular political figure in Texas. He is the best financed. He has his own powerful personal narrative of overcoming great adversity, in a wheelchair since an oak tree fell on him as he jogged in Houston in 1984, crushing his spine and leaving him a paraplegic. As attorney general, Abbott built his reputation by serially suing President Barack Obama, with some success.
In his public utterances and tweets, Abbott hews to the right. But as governor, he has mostly hewed to the job’s prescribed role, which, in the session, means proclaiming at the outset a few emergency items (those that can be voted on in the first 60 days), exercising his veto at session’s end, and using the veto threat and behind-the-scenes nudges and negotiation to guide the process along the way.
In his decision-making, Abbott remains temperamentally what he was for many years: a judge — careful, deliberative and, until he renders his final judgment, often inscrutable. As he told reporters in a pre-session roundtable about Patrick’s marquee effort to require individuals to use the public restrooms that correspond to their gender at birth, “I think we are in a situation where there are more unknowns than there are knowns.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

At his inauguration as lieutenant governor in 2015, Patrick declared himself a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third. His political persona is that of a crusader. Befitting his background as a talk radio host, he speaks swiftly and quotably, free of hesitation or doubt, leaving no controversy behind.
In his first session, he consolidated his power, eliminating the rule that required a two-thirds vote to bring a bill to the floor and setting the legislative pace in the Capitol. This session he has already upped the ante, developing a comprehensive agenda of 30 legislative priorities — including property tax reform, reducing the franchise tax and such hot buttons as school choice, sanctuary cities, photo voter ID and the “women’s privacy act” (his bathroom bill).
Of the Big Three, Patrick is also the Donald Trump loyalist, having chaired the Trump campaign in Texas, while Abbott endorsed Trump but kept his distance, and Straus just kept his distance.

House Speaker Joe Straus

Straus is a cool customer, patrician in bearing, indifferent to the spotlight or the sound bite, while keeping the naturally fractious House functioning as the effective speed governor on Patrick’s Senate, slowing or stopping the edgiest elements of the lieutenant governor’s agenda.
Like Patrick, Straus enters the session at the top of his game. First elected speaker in 2009 on the strength of Democratic support in a House with a razor-thin GOP edge, Straus this session will preside over a House with an enormous Republican advantage (95-55), and without even a symbolic Tea Party challenge to his holding the gavel in sight.
Straus is mostly unknown to Texas voters. He probably could not survive a statewide Republican primary. But, of the Big Three, he might be closest to the state’s political center of gravity.
“I believe in limited government. I also believe in functional government, that public services should be delivered well, with efficiency and accountability,” Straus said just after the November election. “Emotional, divisive issues get the attention, and they get the television ratings, but remember, state government is really about basics — education, public safety, infrastructure.”
Jonathan Tilove
Your Central Texas lawmakers
Central Texans will be represented in the 2017 Legislature by a new senator and three new House members.
On the Senate side, Republican Dawn Buckingham, an eye surgeon who served on the Lake Travis school board, will take over for Republican Troy Frasier, who retired. Her district stretches from western Travis County into the Hill Country.
In the House, Democrat Gina Hinojosa, a former Austin school board president, will represent a district that runs from West William Cannon Drive in South Austin to Duval Road in North Austin and includes much of downtown and the University of Texas. She replaces longtime House member Elliott Naishtat, also a Democrat, who retired.
Also new to the House is Terry Wilson, a Republican who will represent northern Williamson County, Burnet County and Milam County.
Finally, Dawnna Dukes, who represents much of East Austin, Manor and southern Pflugerville, had said she would step down before the start of the session, but reversed course shortly before the start of the session. She cited poor health and faces a criminal investigation into her use of legislative staff and campaign funds. ​
Senate District 5
Charles Schwertner (R)
First Senate session: 2013
Occupation: Orthopedic surgeon
Capitol office: 512-463-0105; E1.806
Of note: As chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, Schwertner will play a key role in efforts to reform the state’s foster care system and Child Protective Services. Other bills would limit public university fee and tuition increases to the inflation rate, create statewide regulation of ride-sharing firms and ban donations of fetal tissue from an abortion for medical research. Previously served one term in the Texas House.

Senate District 14
Kirk Watson (D)
First Senate session: 2007
Occupation: Lawyer
Capitol office: 512-463-0114, E1.804
Of note: Top priority will be allocating money to convert the Austin State Hospital into a center for research and treatment of mental illness. A member of the Sunset Advisory Commission; head of the Senate Democratic Caucus in the two previous sessions; was twice elected Austin’s mayor, the first time in 1997, but left office early to run for Texas attorney general, losing to Greg Abbott in 2002. Chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce in 2004.

Senate District 21
Judith Zaffirini (D)
First Senate session: 1987
Occupation: Communications professional
Capitol office: 512-463-0121, 1E.14
Of note: The first Hispanic woman elected to the Texas Senate. Boasts of a perfect attendance record since 1987 — except when she joined 11 Democrats who delayed a vote on redistricting maps by fleeing to New Mexico to break quorum during a 2003 special session. Is pressing this session to ban texting while driving, make college tuition more affordable and make prekindergarten available to all 4-year-olds.

Senate District 24
Dawn Buckingham (R)
First Senate session: 2017
Occupation: Eye surgeon
Capitol office: 512-463-0124, GE.5
Of note: Served on the Lake Travis school board for a year before resigning to run for the Senate, emerging from a six-way GOP primary to replace Troy Frasier, a Republican who retired after 20 years in the Senate. The first bill filed by Buckingham was a resolution calling on Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Senate District 25
Donna Campbell (R)
First Senate session: 2013
Occupation: Emergency room physician
Capitol office: 512-463-0125, 3E.8
Of note: Has served as chairwoman of the Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee. Has filed a bill to require a school course on the nation’s founding principles, Constitution and Federalist Papers, and another creating a property tax exemption for spouses of police, firefighters and emergency workers killed on duty.

House District 17
John Cyrier (R)
First session: 2015
Occupation: General contractor
Capitol office: 512-863-7872, E2.314
Of note: Won a special election to replace Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, who left for a job at the Texas Department of Agriculture, during the 2015 legislative session. Lives near Lockhart and owns the commercial general contracting firm Sabre Commercial.

House District 20
Terry Wilson (R)
First session: 2017
Occupation: Retired from 30-year Army career
Capitol office: 512-463-0309, E2.702
Of note: Defeated incumbent state Rep. Marsha Farney in the GOP primary and easily won in November in the predominantly Republican district. Has promised to oppose abortion rights and support strong border security measures.

House District 45
Jason Isaac (R)
First session: 2011
Occupation: Consultant to the trucking and natural gas industries
Capitol office: 512-463-0647; E1.320
Of note: In 2015, helped secure a dramatic victory for the “Save Our Wells” movement in Hays County when his bill to ensure the entire county was within the jurisdiction of a groundwater conservation district was resurrected at the last minute after appearing to have been killed. Lives in Dripping Springs.

House District 46
Dawnna Dukes (D)
First session: 1995
Occupation: Business consultant
Capitol office: 512-463-0506; E2.302
Of note: Had said she would step down before the start of the session, citing health problems, before changing her mind days before the session was set to begin. Facing a criminal investigation over her use of legislative staff and campaign funds.

House District 47
Paul Workman (R)
First session: 2011
Occupation: Owner of commercial construction company
Capitol office: 512-463-0652; E1.304
Of note: Elected in the tea party sweep of 2010. Touts himself as anti-regulation, pro-business. Close with construction and real estate lobby groups, and was among the 29 representatives who voted against the state budget in 2013 because he said it spent too much.

House District 48
Donna Howard (D)
First session: 2007
Occupation: Former critical care nurse and Eanes school district trustee
Capitol office: 512-463-0631; E1.504
Of note: Has focused on health care and education, along with environmental protection and historic preservation. Serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

House District 49
Gina Hinojosa (D)
First session: 2017
Occupation: Lawyer; former Austin school board president
Capitol office: 512-463-0668; E2.316
Of note: Won a crowded Democratic primary and coasted to victory in November in the deep-blue district. Hinojosa is the daughter of Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. Replaces longtime Democratic Rep. Elliott Naishtat. Wants to revamp public school funding system.

House District 50
Celia Israel (D)
First session: 2015
Occupation: Realtor
Capitol office: 512-463-0821; E2.212
Of note: Wrote a bill that became law requiring the state to study the conditions of pregnant women in Texas jails and made headlines for unexpectedly siding with Republicans who were pushing a bill that would have allowed ministers to decline to marry couples based on religious beliefs about same-sex marriage.

House District 51
Eddie Rodriguez (D)
First session: 2003
Occupation: Lawyer
Capitol office: 512-463-0674; Room CAP 4S.5
Of note: Legislative agenda includes bills to address public and higher education, regional transportation, economic development, renewable energy and public safety. Active in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

House District 52
Larry Gonzales (R)
First session: 2011
Occupation: Owner, graphic design and communications company
Capitol office: 512-463-0670; E2.418
Of note: Was recently named chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically investigates state agencies and makes recommendations on how to reform or consolidate them. Former assistant vice chancellor for governmental relations for the Texas State University System.

House District 136
Tony Dale (R)
First session: 2013
Occupation: Consultant on energy-related matters
Capitol office: 512-463-0696; E2.602
Of note: Wrote a law that makes it easier for sexual assault or stalking victims to obtain protective orders against perpetrators. Former Cedar Park City Council member. Wants to pass a bill this session addressing inappropriate student-teacher relationships.
Our Coverage
The American-Statesman, as usual, will dedicate a team of seasoned reporters to covering the Legislature.
Jonathan Tilove
Chief political correspondent. Coverage areas include Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas congressional delegation.
Chuck Lindell
Covers the Texas Senate, criminal justice, abortion regulations, gun policy, LGBT issues, marijuana laws, Texas attorney general’s office, legal affairs including appellate courts.
Asher Price
Covers environmental policy, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Lower Colorado River Authority, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Water Development Board.
Julie Chang
Covers Texas Health and Human Services, Child Protective Services and foster care system, health care policy, Medicare and Medicaid, education policy including Texas Education Agency and State Board of Education.
Sean Collins Walsh
Covers the Texas House, state budget, pensions, state workers, ethics reform, the Department of Agriculture, the comptroller’s office, the General Land Office, border security and immigration issues.
James Barragán
Covers the intersection of business and government. Beat areas include Racing Commission, payday lending, insurance, economic incentive programs, business tax reform.
Ben Wear
Covers transportation issues, Texas Department of Transportation and local transportation agencies including Capital Metro.
Ralph Haurwitz
Covers higher education policy including University of Texas System regents, Higher Education Coordinating Board.
W. Gardner Selby
PolitiFact Texas chief fact checker.
Ken Herman
Columnist. Has covered Texas politics since 1979.
Robert W. Gee
State editor. Directs coverage of state politics and government.
Follow our legislative coverage on Twitter @VirtualCapitol and on Facebook.

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