There are 181 of them in total, 150 in the lower chamber and 31 up top. They meet in odd-numbered years for 140 days between January and June. They take home $7,200 annually for their efforts, $33,800 if you count their $190 daily per diem. (How much does a burger cost in Austin?) Some are bright, some are not. And they make decisions that will impact your life, every day, in ways great and small.
On January 10, the Texas state legislature will reconvene for its 85th term. Here’s an early look at some issues they might debate, with an assist from UH political science professor Justin Kirkland.
Books Aren’t Cheap
This summer, the state Supreme Court called Texas’s school-funding formula “byzantine,” and “undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement.” And that was in a ruling that upheld its constitutionality. It’s like refusing to sell a broken-down car.
Texans pay for schools with sales tax revenue from Austin and property taxes from our cities and towns. Because the state is stingy when it comes to book learnin’ (38th per capita in education spending), municipalities carry a heavier burden, which creates inequities for property-poor districts. One in four “rich” districts actually forks over local money to help educate students in districts that can’t raise enough from their own tax bases; it’s colloquially called the Robin Hood system, and HISD is expected to contribute $162 million in 2017.
Some education advocates will push for a bump in the basic allotment that each district receives from the capitol (now $5,140 per student), arguing it would help curb the need for excessive recapture while easing disparities. But in a system servicing 5 million kids, each $100 increase would cost $1 billion. How many piggy banks do you think they’ll crack open?
A Fistful of Dollars
“A nice way to score political points is to spend more money protecting the border here in Texas,” Kirkland says. To that end, the Texas Department of Public Safety requested $1.1 billion for border security over the next two years, a $300 million jump from its 2015 funding levels. The money would allow DPS to add 250 troopers along our southern edge and purchase new technology including surveillance cameras.
No doubt, border agents do admirable and dangerous work protecting against drug smuggling and human trafficking. On the other hand, illegal immigration has stabilized since 2009; more than half of Texas’s 1.5 million undocumented immigrants have lived here for more than a decade. Still, it’s a conservative-leaning legislature, and the GOP’s hard line on immigration shows few signs of softening.
Rep. Matt Shaheen claims that he’d rather “die politically” than allow transgender Texans to use restrooms based on their gender identity. And so in September, the Plano Republican took matters into his own hands, drafting a bill that will excite both local Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) opponents and backers of the infamous HB2 law in North Carolina.
Excerpts obtained by the NBC affiliate in Dallas show the prospective statute would prohibit local governments from adopting measures “to protect a class of persons from discrimination” if that population is not otherwise protected under state law. Houston activists, in other words, couldn’t revive the substance of HERO.
“At some point, a uniformity of rules is going to be required,” Kirkland says, “so we don’t have competing ideas about how to treat transgender citizens across the state.”
Of course, many Houstonians are downright fatigued with all this bathroom talk. And anyway, doesn’t Texas have bigger worries?
Pennies and Sense
What happens when oil and gas revenues plunge, healthcare costs rise, and the economy cools? It gets harder to pay for stuff.
The fight over Texas’s fiscal priorities will dominate the proceedings in Austin this winter. Gov. Greg Abbott has already asked many state agencies to trim their 2017 spending plans by 4 percent, in an effort to “restrain the size and scope of government.” Democrats and social-service providers fear deep cuts are on the horizon.
Instituting a state income tax is a non-starter. Sales taxes aren’t budging, either. The state rate is currently 6.25 percent, and local governments can tack on an additional surcharge. (In Houston, it’s 1 percent.) “If you start pushing [the combined rate] up to 9 or 10 percent,” Kirkland says, “you’re going to face some really serious political ramifications.”
There is, by the way, $10.1 billion sitting in the legislature’s rainy-day fund, a record high. That said, the governor’s office hasn’t shown much interest in siphoning resources from that pool. One man’s downpour is another’s drizzle.