Looking back at a Legislature marked by what it didn’t get done


Highlights

The Legislature failed to address the school finance system, substantial ethics reform and some routine bills.

Lawmakers did, however, approve new abortion restrictions, a ban on “sanctuary cities” and a CPS overhaul.

The GOP-controlled Legislature also passed many bills opposed by the city of Austin.

The 85th Texas Legislature might be remembered less for what it accomplished and more for what it failed to get done.

With House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, at loggerheads over many issues, lawmakers departed Austin on Monday without fixing the state’s school finance system, substantially reforming ethics regulations or coming to an agreement on such hot-button social issues as transgender bathroom access.

They even failed to approve a routine bill needed to keep some state agencies open, an omission that could soon bring them back for a special session.

But lawmakers did approve several major policy changes, including a restructuring of Texas’ child protection agencies, a ban on so-called sanctuary cities and new abortion-related restrictions.

Here’s a round-up of what did and didn’t get done in the legislative session that ended Monday.

Banning ‘sanctuary cities’

In the session’s most contentious battle, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a bill that aims to ban “sanctuary cities,” regarded as local jurisdictions that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law on May 7. It takes effect Sept. 1.

Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, imposes stiff financial penalties and creates a criminal offense for local officials who are deemed to run afoul of the law. The bill targets two types of local sanctuary policies: police forces that prohibit their officers from asking subjects about immigration status and county jails that decline to honor all Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold for an extra 48 hours inmates suspected of being in the country illegally to allow for possible deportation proceedings.

The ban, which Texas Republicans have been attempting to pass for several years, gained political momentum with the election of President Donald Trump and a dispute between Abbott and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez over a new county jail policy that limits cooperation with ICE detainer requests to inmates accused of the most serious offenses.

The emotional debate over the issue wrenched the Capitol, from an all-night hearing in the Senate and a 16-hour debate in the House to a fight on the House floor between lawmakers that was sparked by protesters opposed to the new law.

Austin, along with some other cities and immigration advocates, has already sued to block implementation of the law, which saying it violates constitutional rights and will lead to increased racial profiling.

Child welfare

In a session marked by discord among the state’s top officials and between the two parties, there was one issue that never fell victim to dysfunction: the need to fix the state’s beleaguered child protection agency.

After reports of alarmingly high turnover, lawmakers approved an additional $500 million for the Department of Family and Protective Services to hire hundreds of new caseworkers and to give raises to existing employees.

They also approved a slate of reform measures — House Bills 4, 5 and 7 and SB 11 — aimed at changing the way the department oversees Child Protective Services and the foster care system.

SB 11 will create standardized policies for child abuse and neglect investigations, require the state to collect and monitor repeated reports of abuse or neglect involving the same child or by the same alleged perpetrator, cover the costs of day care services for foster children and create pilot programs in two geographical areas for the privatization of family-based safety services, which help families who have been investigated for abuse.

The House bills will increase payments to people who foster children who are their family members, address the court proceedings that affect foster children and their biological parents and make the Department of Family and Protective Services its own agency instead of being housed within Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Abortion

Conservative House Republicans called a press conference in early May to express their dismay over the slow pace of abortion regulations.

Three weeks later, the same legislators were celebrating when most of their wish list was lumped into a relatively modest Senate bill, putting Texas on the verge of enacting the most sweeping abortion regulations since 2013.

Abortion-rights advocates, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the heart of the 2013 law, had a familiar response: We’ll see you in court.

Under the beefed-up SB 8, abortion clinics and hospitals must ensure that fetal tissue, whether from a miscarriage or abortion, is buried or cremated. The bill also restricts the most common procedure for second-trimester abortions, prohibits medical research on fetal tissue from abortions and creates state crimes for two practices already prohibited by federal law — buying or selling fetal body parts and “partial-birth” abortions.

However, one priority for abortion opponents, a ban on abortion coverage in private and government insurance plans, fell short for the second consecutive session.

Lean state budget

Due to sluggishness in the oil and gas sector, diminishing tax revenues and past fiscal decisions tying their hands — especially a $2.6 billion tax cut for businesses and a $4.7 billion set-aside for transportation projects adopted in 2015 — lawmakers initially had less money to spend this year than they did for the current budget.

Early in the legislative session, the House and the Senate clashed over how to stretch the state’s dollars to avoid drastic cuts to state agencies and universities. But in a moment of harmony in the Legislature’s closing days, they approved a compromise $216.8 billion budget for 2018 and 2019 that slightly boosts spending over the current two-year budget. (After factoring in inflation and population growth, it translates to a 7.6 percent cut compared with present spending levels, according to the Legislative Budget Board.)

To ease the belt-tightening, the budget takes $990 million from the state’s $12 billion rainy day fund, a move proposed by the House, and delays a $1.8 billion payment to the State Highway Fund until the next budget cycle, a maneuver pushed by the Senate.

The budget boosts funding for the scandal-plagued child protection agency by $500 million, maintains the state’s $800 million commitment to border security and mostly maintains the status quo in the state’s contribution to public schools and state colleges and universities.

The Legislature’s top budget writers, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, won praise from their colleagues for being able to reach an accord.

School finance v. ‘school choice’

When it comes to Texas’ public schools, Straus and Patrick had different goals, and neither got what they wanted.

Through HB 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, Straus wanted to fix the state’s widely panned school finance system by boosting the state’s contribution to education funding and by paring back the so-called Robin Hood system, in which districts with high property values send money to the state that is redirected to districts with fewer resources.

Through SB 3 by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, Patrick wanted to create a voucher-style program in which low-income families could use taxpayer money to pay for private-school tuition.

Both leaders pushed their preferred plans through their own chambers only to see them ignored or rewritten on the other side of the Capitol.

While there appears to be little appetite for Patrick’s voucher plan in the House — the lower chamber voted overwhelmingly twice against state spending for private schools — Straus’ push to improve the school finance system could win over both chambers if it is added to the agenda for a special session.

Local control

Using their might at the Capitol after falling short in Austin’s most expensive election ever, Uber and Lyft ultimately got their way with a law overturning a city ordinance that enhanced background checks for the ride-hailing giants’ drivers.

It was one of several measures that appeared to have been aimed at Austin, even though other cities like Corpus Christi and Houston also saw their ride-hailing ordinances overturned.

State lawmakers also ended the possibility of Austin using so-called linkage fees to address housing affordability. The city had been toying with adding fees on new construction for use in affordable housing. A recent report on institutionalized racism also pointed to the fees as a way to keep minority communities closer to the city center.

Local officials had also been worried about efforts to restrict the ability of large cities to annex new lands. However, that bill failed after Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, blocked a vote with a late-session filibuster.

Bills that could have undone Austin’s bag ban, tree ordinance and short-term rental ordinance died as well.

Transgender bathrooms

The fight over which bathrooms transgender Texans should use began early and erupted often during the session, in the end sparking a confrontation that exposed sharp divisions between Patrick and Straus.

Patrick was the Capitol’s leading voice for ending transgender-friendly bathroom and locker room policies, saying it was an essential issue of safety, privacy and decency.

Straus scoffed, dismissing bathroom legislation as a manufactured answer to a nonexistent crisis that would inspire economy-sapping boycotts and a backlash from leading corporations.

As the end of the regular session neared, Patrick accused Straus of acting more like a Democrat than a Republican — first by stifling bathroom legislation in the House, then by allowing a do-nothing amendment that didn’t place meaningful limits on transgender bathroom use in public schools.

Patrick issued the first ultimatum, telling reporters that he would try to force a special session if the House failed to pass a substantial transgender bathroom bill. A few days later, Straus said enough time had been wasted on the issue and dropped an ultimatum of his own — take the House amendment or leave it.

The session ended Monday with no action on transgender bathrooms, leaving Abbott with the choice of dropping the matter or pursuing it in a special session.

Property taxes

Another Patrick priority that failed to pass but could resurface in a special session is a measure restricting local property tax increases.

SB 2 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would have required cities and counties to get voter approval for tax increases of 5 percent or more. Currently, citizens can petition to hold a “rollback election” for increases of 8 percent or more.

The House never brought SB 2 to the floor and instead passed a watered-down property tax measure that dealt only with increasing transparency on the appraisal and rate-setting process, not rollback elections.

Straus lieutenants have argued that the Senate bill would do little to cut property taxes because it doesn’t include school districts, which account for a majority of the average Texan’s tax bill. Scores of local mayors, county commissioners and police chiefs lobbied to oppose the bill, saying it would endanger public safety because city and county taxes largely fund jails and first responders.

Patrick, however, isn’t backing down and has called on Abbott to include property tax relief on a special session agenda.



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