Promises and results from the ‘Super Bowl’ of legislative sessions

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In January, the top three state leaders sat at a table in front of the Governor’s Mansion and made a big promise. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — the so-called “Big Three” — vowed to work together to fix the state’s school finance system while driving down property tax rates statewide.

Thursday, the three returned to the same spot to announce they’d done just that. 

At a news conference, Abbott touted a conference committee agreement on House Bill 3, the school finance legislation. He said it fulfilled their promise to pay Texas teachers more, fund full-day pre-K, and lower school district tax rates.

“We are funding district and education no longer on the basis of the wealth of a school district, but on the needs of our individual students,” Abbott said. He told reporters that HB 3 includes about $5 billion in property tax relief. “It lowers school property tax rates by an average of 8 cents in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021.”

A big theme of the news conference was the emphasis on unity among the Big Three and state lawmakers.

“This was a session of everyone working as a team,” Patrick said. He called it the “Super Bowl of legislative sessions,” saying it may be the most successful session in state history. “Ronald Reagan said it best: when no one cares about the credit, it’s amazing what can be done. And that’s what happened this session.”

“At this point now everybody seems to be on the same team. I’m sure there are some differences behind the scenes that we are not privy to, but it does look like they are presenting a strong front together,” said James Barragán, state government reporter for the Dallas Morning News.

“They did a remarkably good job of keeping the lid on the things that usually make them mad,” said Texas Tribune executive editor, Ross Ramsey. “They had little spits and spurts here and there, there was big debate on this bill and that bill but for the most part we didn’t have some overriding nastiness or ugly conversation going on.”

Things started to get ugly Tuesday before a key bill deadline in the House. One of Abbott’s priority items, Senate Bill 10, was killed on procedural point of order. The bill aimed to create a mental health consortium in Texas. 

The legislation came out of the search for solutions after the Santa Fe school shootings. “This was the one big thing that everybody agreed on they could do to try and prevent these kinds of future events,” Barragán said.

Not everyone agreed. Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) raised concerns, saying he thought the bill could affect parental rights. He raised the point of order to stop the bill.

“He killed it around 7 p.m. and then there was a big scramble behind the scenes to try and get it back,” Barragán said. “It was a big priority to the Governor and to basically everyone in the legislature not named Johnathan Stickland.”

One hour before the midnight bill filing deadline, SB 10 supporters found a solution. They tacked it on as an amendment to Senate Bill 11, a school safety bill that had already passed its third reading.That move led to a shouting match between Stickland, Bonnen and Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), the House sponsor for SB 10. After tensions settled, and a few choice words were shared, the mental health consortium was finally passed.

“At the beginning of the session a lot of members were privately saying “We don’t want to look like the people in Washington’, ineffective,” Ramsey said. The relative lack of in-fighting and gridlock could help lawmakers as they leave the Capitol and transition into election season.

“That’s why they had all the bread and butter talk,” Ramsey said. “The idea was let’s look like we’ve got our shoulder to the wheel in turning in a good work product and they can go home and claim that.”

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