LEGISLATIVE REPORT: House, Senate continue to move closer to passing budget

AUSTIN — Last week, with 60 days remaining until the end of the 140-day regular session of the 86th Texas Legislature, the House and Senate vaulted closer toward finalizing a state budget.

On March 27, the House of Representatives voted 149-0 in favor of HB 1, its version of the state budget for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The lower chamber’s bill allocates some $251 billion to cover the two years and puts $9 billion more than the current budget into education reform, including a teacher pay increase and pension funding, and property tax reform. SB 1, the Senate’s version of the state budget, is scheduled for more early-April hearings in the Senate Finance Committee before coming to a Senate floor vote.

SB 1, like HB 1, presently contains some $9 billion for education reform and a property tax break. Since mid-January, the committee chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, heard more than 750 witnesses present public testimony in 25 meetings, helping members craft a bill that totals more than 1,000 pages. Nelson broke down the $9 billion as follows:

— Almost $4 billion for an across-the-board teacher pay raise of $5,000;

— $2.3 billion in additional money for non-salary public education reform; and

— $2.7 billion for property tax relief.

SB 1 is expected to pass soon in the Senate, and should it do so, a conference committee of House and Senate members must meet to reconcile differences in the two versions of the state budget. Nelson and four other senators appointed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, along with House Appropriations Committee Chair John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and four House members appointed by Speaker Dennis Bonnen, will make up the conference committee. After the versions are reconciled, both chambers will put the measure to a final vote. If passed, the budget would then be forwarded to Gov. Greg Abbott for final approval.

Bill would raise exemption

The Senate Property Tax Committee on March 26 considered legislation to increase the homestead exemption for local school property taxpayers by $10,000.

SB 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 71, a proposed constitutional amendment by the committee’s chair, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would ask voters in November to approve an increase to the amount of property value that a homeowner can exempt from $25,000 to $35,000.

He said the increase would cut the average property tax bill in Texas by about $125 per year and the state would be able to cover the loss in revenue to school districts by using proceeds from oil and gas production taxes that would otherwise have gone into the Economic Stabilization “Rainy Day” Fund.

Bettencourt said the fund has enough in it to justify the diversion. “I personally view the (Rainy Day Fund) as full because we’re looking at values up to $15.66 billion at the end of the biennium without any withdrawals,” he said.

Lawmakers ask for more

Texas transportation infrastructure is not keeping up with growth, and to make matters worse, the Lone Star State receives less than any other state compared to what it pays into the federal Highway Trust Fund.

To request a better rate of return, all 38 members of the Texas congressional delegation joined in a March 26 letter to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The delegation’s letter notes the 95 cents on the dollar returned to Texas in fiscal 2019 amounts to a loss of up to $940 million in taxes paid by Texas motorists and taxpayers. In contrast, according to Federal Highway Administration figures, Alaska received $6.78, New York, $1.33, and California, $1.16.

“Texas has been denied a fair return on federal fuel taxes for far too long. It is imperative that an equitable share of these funds be allocated to improving transportation systems right here in Texas,” said Gov. Abbott. “I urge Congress to put an end to this funding inequity,” he added.

Senate OKs harassment bill

Any employee of a public or private university who sees or learns of an incident of sexual harassment, assault, rape, dating violence or stalking would be required to report it to the institution’s Title IX coordinator under SB 212, which was unanimously approved by the Texas Senate on March 26.

According to the Senate News Service, the legislation by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, also would require the coordinator to make regular reports to the university president regarding the number of complaints and the status of investigations.

The president, in turn, would have to make a report to the university board of trustees every semester of the number, disposition and status of complaints and investigations, the findings thereof, and the disciplinary actions taken. This report would be public information but would not identify any person. The legislation still must pass the House and be signed by the governor to become law.