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The Texas Legislative session begins, and it will grapple with 6 key issues

 A legislator fist bumps a House administration staffer as they entered the House chamber on Aug. 11, 2021.
Sophie Park
The Texas Tribune
A legislator fist bumps a House administration staffer as they entered the House chamber on Aug. 11, 2021.

Lawmakers returned to Austin today for their biennial assembly to pass new laws and decide how to spend the state’s money for the next two years.

Republicans maintained their nearly 30-year dominance over Texas politics in last November’s midterm elections, growing their majorities in both legislative chambers and keeping their grasp on every statewide elected office. That means Texans can expect the Legislature to continue to swing conservative on both fiscal and social matters.

Just how conservative they go will be the main question, as the battle between far-right, socially conservative Republicans and business-oriented GOP legislators, who have tried to move away from fights over social issues, continues within the party.

Democrats, who have been in the minority in both chambers of the Legislature for 20 years, will have limited tools to fend off Republican advances and will have to choose their battles wisely.

With a record-breaking budget surplus, lawmakers will be putting out their hands for funding for their pet projects across the state, and top leaders will no longer have the ready excuse of limited means. But with rising costs due to inflation, lawmakers will also have to factor in how much more they’ll have to spend in the state budget to cover infrastructure and staffing costs that keep the state running.

Texas has seen major challenges since the last time lawmakers assembled in Austin in late 2021: a school shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, higher inflation hitting Texans in their pocketbooks, a record number of migrants attempting to cross the state’s southern border, the outlawing of abortion following a U.S. Supreme Court decision and parents who have grown increasingly agitated about what public schools are teaching their children about gender, sex and race.

With major issues at play in the Capitol, here are six things we are watching as Texas’ 88th legislative session kicks off.

How to spend the budget surplus

The biggest topic of conversation heading into today is how to spend the state’s $32.7 billion budget surplus, and everyone — including top legislative leadership — is chomping at the bit over how to use that cash.

“It’s always easiest to spend other people’s money, so everyone is going to try to get their pet projects done,” said Brian Smith, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

The surplus, or one-time money that was left over from the previous budget cycle, is historic in its enormousness. But not all of it is up for grabs. A share of it is reserved for highway funds, and some of it will flow into the state’s rainy day fund, also called the Economic Stabilization Fund.

Gov. Greg Abbott promised during his campaign to deliver “the largest property tax cut in the history of the state.” He said he wanted to use half of the budget surplus to deliver on that promise. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another property tax relief hawk, has introduced a note of caution, warning the Legislature could not spend half of the surplus without busting its self-imposed spending cap. (The Legislature can vote to spend beyond the cap.)

Patrick, whose railing against property taxes swept him into the Senate in 2007, has said he is committed to cutting property taxes but wants to move cautiously to ensure the state has enough money left over in its rainy day fund for emergency spending and for other state priorities.

In the House, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has suggested allocating some of the surplus to one-time infrastructure spending. That plan carries the advantage of not having to reproduce that spending in the budget every two years, like with property tax relief, which is a recurring state cost.

But there are also other factors to consider. A property tax cut, for example, would more directly benefit homeowners rather than renters. And since a considerable chunk of the surplus comes from an increase in the revenue generated by sales tax, some lawmakers have raised the question about the fairness of rewarding only homeowners when that money has come from Texans across the board.

It’s also unclear how much homeowners would even notice a property tax cut in the form of a homestead exemption. In 2021, lawmakers increased the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, which would save the average homeowner of a $300,000 home about $175 a year.

Lawmakers will also have to weigh additional costs to running the state. Because of inflation, the costs for state services will be more expensive, and state employees will be lagging behind without a cost-of-living adjustment in their salaries.

“Spending is not keeping up with inflation. So we need to do something about what we pay state workers and how we deal with the agencies,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst at Every Texan, a liberal think tank.

“Parental rights”

Republican leaders and lawmakers have targeted “parental rights” at the center of their agendas this session. They want to give parents more say in their children’s education, whether it be the school they attend or the books they read.

How exactly that goal manifests itself in the session remains to be seen. Abbott campaigned for reelection on a “parental bill of rights” that, among other things, seeks to increase the transparency of school curricula and crack down on what he’s called “pornographic” materials in books available to schoolchildren. In some ways, it is a continuation of GOP efforts from 2021 that led to restrictions on how teachers talk about race and gender in classrooms in an effort to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools.

A more divisive concept inside the GOP could be the revival of an effort for school vouchers, or redirecting tax dollars to let parents take their kids out of public schools and send them to other kinds of schools. Abbott voiced his clearest support yet for the idea during his campaign, but it has historically run into opposition from rural Republicans in the House.

Patrick, who oversees the Senate and has considerable power over legislation, has long supported the concept. In a podcast interview posted Sunday, he said he sees it as part of this session’s focus on “parental freedom.”

“Those who oppose school choice, [they say], ‘Oh, vouchers are terrible!’ No, parents deserve the freedom to decide where their kids go to school,” Patrick said.

But in a sign that voucher supporters know they need to try a different tactic this session, Patrick has pitched “bracketing out” rural Texas in any proposal, hoping to appeal to GOP lawmakers in those areas who are fiercely protective of their public schools.

LGBTQ issues and women’s health

Social conservatives are also attempting to crack down on LGBTQ rights this session. Around three dozen bills targeting LGBTQ people had been filed as of last week.

These bills vary from putting restrictions on drag shows to restricting gender-affirming care for transgender children and even criminalizing it. Such care is recommended by major medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, but socially conservative legislators have decried gender-affirming care as “genital mutilation” and “child abuse.”

Still, major leaders like Abbott have supported the push by conservatives to launch child-abuse investigations of parents who provide such care to their children.

Backlash against drag shows has also grown, with far-right groups targeting the shows and accusing performers of “grooming children” — a trope that has historically been used against LGBTQ people.

Lawmakers will also have to figure out how to tackle access to abortion in the state after the procedure was outlawed in Texas law following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case last summer.

Before the November elections, some Republican candidates and lawmakers had expressed an openness to creating exceptions to the state’s abortion ban in cases of rape or incest. But after Republicans maintained their dominance in state politics on Election Day, Smith said he does not see a political motivation for GOP leaders to revisit the issue.

Patrick has been noncommittal about revisiting the restrictions but has suggested he does not see a “groundswell” to do so among Republicans.

“We may see them be proposed and discussed, but they won’t be moving,” Smith said. “And I think the same is true about guns.”

Border security

Last session, the Legislature allocated a record $3 billion toward border security efforts, including Abbott’s highly touted border mission, Operation Lone Star, which has sent thousands of state troopers and National Guard service members to the Texas-Mexico border. Some of that money has also been used to build a border wall, the first in the country funded by state coffers.

But with a record number of migrants trying to cross into the country — U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 2.4 million attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2022 — the funding could not keep up with the large number of resources sent to slow the crossing of migrants.

State lawmakers had to transfer another $1 billion to keep Abbott’s border mission going through 2022, often taking money from underfunded state agencies like the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. More money — ranging from hundreds of millions of dollars to another billion — is expected from the state to continue the effort until the end of the fiscal year in August, DeLuna Castro said.

Still, the number of migrants crossing the southwest border has remained stubbornly high, and state lawmakers will have to decide whether they want to continue spending multiple billions of dollars on an effort that has failed to produce a resounding success.

Patrick has answered in the affirmative, saying the state must continue its spending on border security because Democrats in Washington have abandoned their responsibility on the issue.

“People say, ‘Well, they’re still crossing.’ Yes, they’re still crossing because of President Biden,” Patrick said at a news conference unveiling his legislative priorities. “Without our DPS, without our National Guard, without the state doing what we’re doing, the situation would be far worse ... so we have to keep that up until we get a new president in the White House who hopefully will make border security No. 1 in 2024.”

The issue was also central to Abbott’s governing strategy and his reelection campaign, so he’s expected to also support continued spending on border security.

But there could also be other ramifications and questions lawmakers will attempt to respond to legislatively. As Abbott ramped up the mission to deploy 10,000 service members to the border in the fall of 2021, troops began complaining about poor living conditions, a lack of pay and no sense of mission. The mission has also seen the deaths of 10 troops tied to Operation Lone Star, including five suspected suicides and the death of Bishop Evans, a servicemember who died in the Rio Grande while trying to rescue drowning migrants. The migrants survived.

“Who signs up for the Texas State Guard if you think you’re going to get sent [away for a long time] and not come home?” DeLuna Castro said. “Who signs up for that?”

The “Big Three” dynamic

Sessions always hinge on the relationship among the Big Three — the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker. This time around, there is ample cause for tension from the outset of the session.

The two chamber leaders do not like one another, especially after the marathon of sessions in 2021. Patrick repeatedly criticized Phelan’s management of the House after Democrats broke quorum over the GOP’s priority elections bill. And then Patrick wielded his clout with former President Donald Trump to try to gin up primary opposition to Phelan, who ultimately ran unopposed.

“We have to get along to do the business of the state,” Phelan said in September before dryly adding, “and I have to tell you, our staffs get along very well.”

Phelan, speaking at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin in September, added it had “been a while” since he talked to Patrick.

Abbott and Patrick are also a duo to watch. Like Phelan, Abbott saw Patrick meddle in his primary and took note. And more recently, they are especially at odds when it comes to the fallout from the 2021 power grid collapse.

After Abbott declared later that year that lawmakers had done all they needed to do to fix the grid, Patrick campaigned on improving the grid and has named it a top priority for this session. He wants to build more natural gas capacity, a topic on which Abbott has been silent.

Patrick has sought to downplay any leadership tensions on the issue.

The grid is “fixed for now, but we need to fix it forever,” Patrick told Spectrum News in December.

Democratic strategy

Democrats are returning to the Legislature with very similar numbers — 64 members in the House and 13 in the Senate. But in the House, they have a new caucus chair, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, who is known as more sharp-elbowed than his predecessor, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

“Trey is a much different leader,” Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said in a recent interview. “I anticipate there’ll be a more aggressive nature when combating Republicans on the issues.”

House Democrats already showed a new willingness to fight in 2021 when they broke quorum for weeks in protest of new voting restrictions. Martinez Fischer has not ruled out doing that again as a last resort for trying to derail Republican legislation.

Democrats in the House are also watching to see how much of a seat at the table they get as Phelan faces pressure to do away with committee chairs from the minority party, a longtime tradition. Phelan is highly unlikely to give in, as he has defended the practice as one that sets the Legislature apart from the gridlock in Washington. But he could take other steps to reduce Democratic influence in the House.

If there is any floor fight over committee chairs, it would come on the second day of the session — Wednesday — when the lower chamber typically considers its rules for the session.

House Republicans have a new leader, too. On Monday, their caucus elected a new chair, Rep. Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, previously the treasurer of the caucus. The chair during the 2021 sessions, Rep. Jim Murphy of Houston, did not seek reelection to the House.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.