Royce Poinsett 2015-08-25 14:12:14
When the Texas Legislature convened in January, most observers braced for an Ali vs. Foreman-style “Rumble in the Jungle” of turmoil, strife, and special sessions. But the session instead played out relatively peacefully—more like Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. The dire expectations were understandable. New and untested Gov. Greg Abbott was taking the helm after Rick Perry’s unprecedented 14 years in office. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was riding into town on a tea party wave, along with nine new ultra-conservative freshmen Republican senators, pledging to upend traditions and push an already-conservative Legislature even further to the right. And the deepening fault line between the two wings of the Texas Republican Party seemed ready to rupture into all-out political and policy war. “Traditional Republicans” (who are fiscally and socially conservative but also business-friendly) have been increasingly challenged by “Movement Conservative Republicans” (who are more populist and supported by tea party-style primary voters). But in the end, the Legislature surprised pessimistic spectators, finished its work, and went home on schedule. Gov. Abbott proved to be a steady hand, finding balance between providing direction and allowing the process to work its will. And while the two wings of the Republican Party definitely squared off, they managed to negotiate middle-ground, late-session compromises on the most controversial issues. Looking forward to the 2016 election and the next legislative session in 2017, a major question is whether the current balance of power between the two Republican Party factions holds or whether movement conservatives tip the scales by continuing their recent success in ousting incumbent traditional Republicans in the primaries. If they seize more seats, these legislators may be less inclined toward compromise next session, and the Legislature may become even more conservative. Major Legislation The 2015 Texas Legislature considered more than 6,200 pieces of legislation and enacted more than 1,300 into law. Among this abundance of action are several major bills that deserve close attention. Budget. Despite a recent stall in the oil and gas boom, a generally strong Texas economy left the state with a multibillion-dollar surplus for the current budget cycle and with $11 billion in its Rainy Day Fund. However, in constructing the next budget, the Legislature continued its recent trend of leaving billions of dollars on the table, unspent. HB 1 enacts a two-year balanced budget with $209.4 billion in overall spending, an increase of 3.6 percent over the prior budget. Legislators left $6.4 billion in available revenues unspent, and used none of the Rainy Day Fund reserves. Conservatives argue that these monies should be held in reserve for rainier days, pointing at falling oil prices and pending school finance litigation as potential future drains on state finances. Tax cuts. The session’s most contentious battle between the Senate and the House, and between the two wings of the Republican Party, was over how to cut taxes. Senate leadership pushed a populist-style program of property tax cuts for homeowners and targeted franchise tax cuts for small businesses, a proposal widely supported by movement conservative legislators and tea party-style activists. The House leadership countered with a program of sales tax cuts for consumers and an across-the-board cut in the franchise tax for all businesses, a proposal widely supported by traditional conservative legislators and the business community. In the end, negotiators reached a compromise $3.8 billion tax cut package (with SB 1/SJR 1 and HB 32) that, pending voter approval, will increase the state homestead exemption on school property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000 and cut the franchise tax by 25 percent across the board. HB 7 repealed the longstanding $200 yearly “occupation taxes” charged to more than 650,000 professionals in 16 professions (including lawyers, accountants, and doctors), which represented an annual tax cut of $150 million. Guns. Under HB 910, beginning January 1, 2016, Texans with a concealed handgun license may also carry their handgun openly in a hip or shoulder holster; however, private businesses will still have the right to prohibit guns on their property. Under SB 11, beginning August 1, 2016, public universities in the state must allow concealed handguns in dormitories, classrooms, cafeterias, and other campus buildings; however, public university presidents did win compromise language allowing them to declare certain areas off-limits for guns for safety reasons, and private universities won a total exemption from the legislation. Education. The Legislature continued to put aside public school finance reform as it awaited a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court on the current system’s constitutionality (the court heard arguments on September 1, 2015). However, the Legislature did increase public school funding in the state budget by $1.5 billion per biennium. Legislators also revamped the manner in which public school campuses are evaluated with HB 2804, decreasing the reliance on high-stakes testing and replacing the current “Met Standard/Improvement Required/Not Rated” rankings with an “A through F” scale. In higher education, the Legislature approved in HB 100 the issuance of $3.1 billion in bonds to fund renovation and new construction at 64 public campuses, the first such approval since 2006. Transportation. Legislators are finally directing serious funding toward addressing our growing state’s transportation needs. Emboldened by recent voter approval of $1.2 billion for new roads from the Rainy Day Fund, legislators ended $550 million in yearly diversions of gas tax revenues to other state functions in the state budget and teed up for voter approval of an additional $2.5 billion in funding from sales tax revenues in SJR 5. Border security and immigration reform. “Border security” has largely replaced “immigration reform” as the rallying cry for Texas Republicans. HB 11 is an $800 million border security program, under which the Texas Department of Public Safety will purchase new law enforcement equipment and hire hundreds more officers to patrol the region. Local control. Oil and gas regulators and companies won a major victory with the enactment of HB 40, a response to the hydraulic fracturing ban approved by Denton voters in November 2014. The new law expressly preempts local regulation of oil and gas drilling, leaving cities with only limited power to regulate surface activities in a “commercially reasonable” fashion. And HB 1794 partially curtails suits by local governments against companies for alleged environmental infractions. But local officials enjoyed their own legislative victories, defending their ability to enact plastic bag bans, install red light cameras, and regulate car-for-hire companies (such as Uber and Lyft) on a city-by-city basis. Criminal justice. With the enactment of HB 2150, legislators replaced the unusual Texas “pick-a-pal” grand jury system (in which judge-appointed commissioners select grand jurors) with a random selection system. Even some conservative Texas legislators are pondering the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. But this session they only dipped their toes in the water, passing SB 339 to permit epilepsy patients to utilize doctor-prescribed, nonrecreational “low-THC cannabis” in their treatment. Energy and environment. While HB 40 was the primary battle between industry and environmentalists this session, industry also prevailed with the passage of SB 709 to curtail the scope and length of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality-contested case hearings and to quicken the issuance of environmental permits for major industrial projects. Social issues. HB 3994 narrowed the “judicial bypass” option by, among other things, heightening the standard of proof required to utilize this process where a minor may petition a judge for authorization to have an abortion without parental consent. The session ended before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized gay marriage, but the Legislature did pass the SB 2065 “Pastor Protection Act,” shielding clergy from lawsuits if they decline to marry same-sex couples. New Laws That Affect the Real World Around water coolers and dinner tables, “real people” may be most interested in these new “real world” laws: Let’s light this candle. HB 1150 expands legal fireworksbuying seasons in Texas to include the days before Texas Independence Day, San Jacinto Day, and Memorial Day. A moveable buzz. HB 2339 repeals laws prohibiting sports fans from carrying their alcoholic beverages from one area of an arena to another. That’s e-legal to you, Junior. SB 97 prohibits the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. Class outside today. SB 265 clarifies state law regarding permitted medications, expressly authorizing students to bring sunscreen to public school campuses. Lido deck. HB 2430 repeals a rarely enforced state regulation prohibiting eating or drinking at “swim-up bars” at hotels and resorts.
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