AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In just over a week, lawmakers will return to the Texas Capitol for a new legislative session. One thing that makes this session different is the state’s financial situation: Lawmakers will start budget talks with a record surplus.
Back in the summer, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar predicted lawmakers would have a record $27 billion surplus. Then in November, he hinted the amount could actually be much larger. He called it a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
“We will never again have an annual tax total collection, compared to the prior year of 25%. We will not still have some federal money that can be utilized instead of state money for general revenue,” Hegar said at an event held by the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “So it is going to be a remarkable opportunity.”
Hegar will issue his official revenue projection right before the start of the session.
Governor Greg Abbott has called for a large part of the surplus to go toward property tax cuts.
He campaigned on spending half of the surplus to cut property taxes. It’s also the top priority for Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. But he points out that state law actually limits how much of the surplus the state can spend.
“If we have a $27 billion surplus, and I think again, it’s gonna be more than that, but half of that half of 27 is 13. Right? Well, that’s more than we can spend on the constitutional cap. So that would split that would take everything we have,” Patrick explained.
“I agree with the governor in this respect, we need to make property tax our number one priority,” Patrick said.
The issues driving the debate under the dome
From budget battles to fights over hot-button issues like guns and the border, the upcoming legislative session is bound to bring tension to the State Capitol. For insight into the issues that will frame the debates under the dome, Monica Madden spoke with politics reporters James Barragán from the Texas Tribune and Niki Griswold of the Austin American-Statesman. What follows is a partial transcript of that interview.
Monica Madden: The state’s massive budget surplus is going to be a driver of conversations throughout the entire legislation. James, I’ll start with you. What fights and conversations are you expecting to play out this session over how to spend that surplus?
James Barragán: We’ve already seen it sort of start to play out with the governor saying he wants to use half of that budget surplus for property tax relief. We’ve seen the Lieutenant Governor come out and say, hold on, wait a minute, there’s no way constitutionally that we can do that. We can get creative with constitutional amendments. And we could do other things. But let’s also think about not spending the whole thing because we have to be financially prudent. And we want to have some money left over for cases of emergency add to that House Speaker Dade Phelan saying we might want to use some of this for infrastructure. And it’s starting to set the tone and tenor of what the debate is going to look like during the legislative session.
Niki Griswold: Building off of what James said that budget surplus isn’t necessarily a sustainable source of funding. And so the speaker’s argument is that it’s more prudent to invest that in a one-time investment when it comes to infrastructure, rather than giving property owners maybe a one-time property tax relief, but the governor has campaigned pretty heavily on that. So, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out the session.
Monica Madden: Last session, a lot of red meat issues drove the headlines, fights over abortion, transgender rights, the election laws. I mean, do you think that Republicans have an appetite to go further on some of those issues or do you think it’s going to be more of a policy-focused session rather than some of those red-meat topics?
James Barragán: Looking at the makeup of both chambers, Republicans have grown their majorities in both chambers. So if they felt like they had a mandate in 2020, to pursue these cultural war, socially conservative issues. I don’t see how they would change their mind this time around since they’ve grown their numbers.
Niki Griswold: And if we’re just going off of a lot of these Republicans, campaigns stump speeches, I have seen a lot of them focus on LGBTQ issues and tackling that this session, you know, defining childhood, including the definition of child abuse to include providing gender-affirming care to transgender students, restricting how teachers can talk about race and sexism and gender identity in the classroom. I think those are cultural issues that will be top of mind for Republicans this session.
Monica Madden: I know Niki, you and I both reported heavily on the mass shooting in Uvalde. How much do you expect the conversation to be more on guns versus mental health based on what Texas has done in the past following other mass shootings?
Niki Griswold: Democrats have already followed up on their promise to those Uvalde families to file legislation that would raise a raise the minimum age required to purchase a semi-automatic rifle like the one used in the shooting from 18 to 21. Governor Abbott has already said he thinks that is unconstitutional, though the Supreme Court hasn’t definitively ruled on that yet. I think it’s pretty clear that Republicans don’t have much appetite to tackle the gun portion of that issue and have focused far more on mental health and school security. So it’ll be interesting to see how much financial investment they put into those two areas.
Monica Madden: We know Republicans campaigned very heavily on border security and immigration, touting Governor Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which James, you’ve reported on. Do you see this as something that they’re going to continue to fund? I mean, what is the future of Operation Lone Star as we stand today?
James Barragán: Well, the numbers haven’t gotten any better. So I think it’s very, very clear that they are going to continue this Operation Lone Star, this border security effort. The question is, how do we pay for it? And what does it look like? You know, at some point, the governor bragged about having 10,000 troops down there. That has gone down to 5000, making it a little bit more feasible to do economically. But that’s still a long-term bill that you’re gonna have to pay, if your argument is that the federal government isn’t doing its job. So yes, I expect to see more border security efforts going forward. But the big fight is going to be how do we pay for it?
Poll shows how Texans feel about state leaders, issues heading into session
A new poll is giving us a better idea of what Texans are thinking about the issues facing the state as we head into the legislative session. For insight, we spoke with Jim Henson, the executive director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. What follows is a partial transcript of our interview.
Monica Madden: Jim, your poll asked Texans what they think about state government specifically, whether it’s addressing the needs of the people right now. And the numbers weren’t great. What is your takeaway on that?
Jim Henson: You know, it was very interesting. We gave people a pair of sets of oppositions where he said, Do you agree with this statement or that statement? And the key finding there was that only 37% of Texans said that they thought that state government met the needs of Texans, 46% the plurality said they didn’t. This tracks with some of our long-standing kind of right track, wrong track numbers, things we’ve seen. But there’s definitely a skepticism about responsiveness out there right now.
Ryan Chandler: To put it mildly, these numbers show that people may not have a high regard for their state governments. But what about the people in charge of that government? Lieutenant Governor Patrick, Governor Abbott, they have different opinions about the people?
Jim Henson: Well, interestingly enough, the leadership in the state got a little bit of a bump now that we’re out of campaign season, not as much negative advertising. And after all the people were pulling on are the winners and people tend to be a little more positive about winners. So everybody went up a little bit, particularly Governor Abbott, he had probably the best ratings that we’ve seen him get in, in over a year. Same with Lieutenant Governor Patrick versus and same with virtually all of the statewide officials. So none of them are over 50%. So we don’t want to like exaggerate the gap. But they’re doing better.
Monica Madden: And as we head into the upcoming legislative session, what would you say are some of the standouts from this poll?
Jim Henson: Well, one of the things that we asked a lot of questions about was business and policy in the state. And there were a lot of interesting results in that one of the things we did was asked Texans whether they thought business was doing too little or too much on a range of hot-button issues that the legislature is paying a lot attention to business policy on it surely enough. The top response in which Texans said that business was doing too little was climate change, almost half said the business was doing too little on climate change. I think that’s going to be a very active issue going into the session, how the how the state is going to respond to things like ESG policies, we’ve heard a lot about, quote-unquote, woke business. It seems like it’s another area where the Republican majority is a little further to the right than where most Texans are.
The next Texas House will include the most women ever
When the state legislature convenes next month for the 88th regular legislative session, the composition of the Texas House of Representatives will include the most women ever.
The November election resulted in the number of female House members growing to 45, so they’ll soon make up 30% of the 150 seats in the lower chamber. The most growth is happening in the Republican caucus. The number of GOP women in the Texas House will double to 13, as seven female candidates emerged victorious from their respective elections.
Ellen Troxclair, the former Austin City Council member, will serve as the new representative for House District 19, which stretches into several Hill Country counties. Ahead of her taking office, the Republican already filed three bills, including one that would ban other Texas cities from copying Austin in creating a guaranteed income program.
“Young Republican women are ready to step up and do our part to protect our families and our communities,” Troxclair said, “and I’m just really thrilled to be a part of this class who I think are going to bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table and do good things for our state.”
The Democratic ranks in the Texas House will grow to 32 women, including the newest addition, Lulu Flores of Austin. She’ll represent House District 51.
“That is music to my ears,” Flores said during an interview with KXAN.
She previously served as president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization that seeks to increase women’s political participation. She finds it fitting now to start her time in office alongside a record number of other women, but she’d like to see more progress made.
“The more inclusive a body can be, I think, the better results you have because you have more voices at the table,” Flores said. “I’m hopeful that having more women in the legislature will add our perspectives and will bring those issues that we’ve had to deal with, and our experiences will come to bear on finding solutions — real practical solutions to things and equitable solutions.”
This high mark for female representation in the state legislature comes 100 years after voters elected the first woman to a seat in the Texas House. Edith Eunice Wilmans served only one term representing Dallas from 1923-1925, according to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas.
Sherri Greenberg, a former state lawmaker who is now a professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin, said research shows more women serving in a legislative body help to build better consensus and raise specific issues to the forefront. According to an analysis published in the American Journal of Political Science, for example, two researchers found that congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. They also said women sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than their male colleagues.
“When you look at policies, of course, it varies according to the philosophies and parties of women — you can’t stereotype women, right?” Greenberg said. “However, there are some policies that you see that gain traction: for instance, maternal health, early childhood, health insurance. Some policies like that seem to gain traction, and in a bipartisan way, when more women are elected.”
She said she’d now like to see representation in elected offices statewide mirror the number of women participating as voters and living in Texas.
“I hope that by increasing the number of women who are elected to the Texas legislature that you will continue to see more progress on many of those issues that are nonpartisan and bipartisan,” Greenberg said, “particularly in workforce and health care and childcare, and some of those issues that are fundamental to everyone in our society.”
- Ellen Troxclair, House District 19
- Caroline Harris, House District 52
- Carrie Isaac, House District 73
- Angelia Orr, House District 13
- Terri Leo Wilson, House District 23
- Janie Lopez, House District 37
- Kronda Thimesch, House District 65
- Lulu Flores, House District 51
- Mihaela Elizabeth Plesa, House District 70
- Josey Garcia, House District 124
The 88th Legislative Session starts Jan. 10.