It’s a wrap: the 10 biggest issues the Legislature tackled this session


The 84th session of the Texas Legislature ended Monday having attended to Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency items on roads, education and border security but deadlocking on major ethics reform. Lawmakers also expanded gun rights, slightly tightened abortion restrictions, and, after much tumult, avoided the issue of same-sex marriage.

The American-Statesman Capitol staff identified 10 issues that dominated the legislative session:

Road spending

The Legislature agreed to place on the November ballot a constitutional amendment that would direct $2.5 billion a year in state sales tax revenue to highways beginning in the 2017-2018 budget year, as long as the total revenue from the 6.25-percent sales tax exceeds $28 billion, as well as 35 percent of any vehicle sales tax revenue above $5 billion in a given year beginning in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

— Jonathan Tilove, American-Statesman

Border security

Backed by an appropriation of $800 million over two years, the Legislature agreed to hire hundreds more Department of Public Safety officers to be stationed on the Texas-Mexico border, lengthen the standard work day for all troopers to 10 hours and keep the Texas National Guard deployed on the border until the extra state troopers arrive.

Lawmakers also decided to create a committee with members from the House and Senate to study border security and provide some oversight of the border efforts.

— Tim Eaton, American-Statesman

Budget

With the help of a multi-billion-dollar budget surplus, lawmakers passed a 2016-17 state budget that accounts for roughly $4 billion in tax cuts while boosting funding for items like border security, transportation and education.

But the $209.4 billion spending plan also leaves billions of dollars on the table — something budget writers have attributed to a pending school finance lawsuit and uncertainty in the economy, particularly with low oil prices.

The budget that won final passage in the waning days of the legislative session spends more than $6 billion less than the $113 billion that state Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimated would be available to spend over the biennium. It also falls nearly $3 billion under a constitutional spending limit and does not touch some $11 billion expected to fill the state’s rainy day fund by fall 2017.

— Kiah Collier, American-Statesman

Tax cuts

How to cut taxes was the most high-profile disagreement between the House and Senate this legislative session.

Both chambers sought to cut business taxes after Abbott threatened to veto a state budget that did not include them. But the House also wanted to cut the state’s 6.25-percent sales tax rate while the Senate insisted on property tax relief.

After a weeks-long standoff, the state’s GOP leaders announced a $3.8 billion compromise package that cuts the business franchise or margins tax by 25 percent and also increases the state homestead exemption on school property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000, which is expected to save the average Texas homeowner more than $120 per year.

— Kiah Collier, American-Statesman

Gun rights

Beginning Jan. 1, those with a concealed handgun license can openly carry a firearm in a hip or shoulder holster.

The Legislature also required public universities to allow concealed guns in dormitories, classrooms and buildings starting Aug. 1, 2016 — or one year later for public community and junior colleges. University presidents can declare specific areas to be off-limits to guns for safety reasons.

— Chuck Lindell, American-Statesman

Same-sex marriage

Republicans filed more than a dozen bills designed to circumvent a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage. None passed — although House Democrats had to run out the clock on a bill that would have barred government officials from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

In the end, one bill passed to protect clergy from lawsuits if they decline to marry a same-sex couple, while the Senate approved a nonbinding resolution against gay marriage.

— Chuck Lindell, American-Statesman

Abortion

The Legislature passed far-reaching restrictions on minors who seek abortions through a judicial bypass, a rarely used process in which girls can ask a judge for permission to get the procedure without parental consent, as required by state law.

House Bill 3994, hotly contested by Democrats in both chambers, limits the counties where girls can apply for a bypass and heightens the burden of proof for minors who must show that attaining parental consent is not possible or would endanger them.

Abortion rights advocates say judicial bypass is a last resort for vulnerable girls whose parents are either negligent or abusive. Bill supporters said the measure closed loopholes which could exclude parents from a major life decision.

— J. David McSwane, American-Statesman

Public education

Thousands of high school seniors will get the chance to graduate this month despite failing two of five end-of-course exams under one of the more significant education reforms the Legislature passed this session.

But the biggest education measures that could have happened — a $3 billion school finance fix and private school voucher legislation — ultimately did not.

— Kiah Collier, American-Statesman

Higher education

Public universities, health-related institutions and technical colleges finally scored the big enchilada: $3.1 billion in bonds for renovation and construction projects at 64 campuses. It was the first major round of such funding since 2006.

Abbott won approval of a $40 million fund — one of his emergency items — intended to further his goal of elevating the national rankings of Texas’ schools. The program will award matching grants for hiring Nobel laureates and National Academy members.

— Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, American-Statesman

Ethics

Lawmakers stumbled on passing major ethics reform, but instead approved smaller measures, including a bill that would require legislators to disclose contracts with the state that are more than $10,000 a year and tell the ethics commission when they serve as bond counsel — lawyers for municipalities that issue bonds. Another bill would prevent politicians from receiving state retirement payments until they leave office.

— Tim Eaton, American-Statesman


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