The session has begun.
At noon on Tuesday, January 10, House and Senate members got sworn in and became official. Representative Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) was elected Speaker with a vote of 147 to 3. The 3 went to Representative Tony Tinderholt (R-Ft Worth). History tells us that members who vote against the eventual Speaker do not necessarily fare well. Time will tell if this trend continues. This futile effort was not a surprise. Representative Tinderholt has not been subtle about his intentions. He leads a small group of Republican members who feel that the Texas House has not quite completed its starboard tack, Speaker Phelan being the current main impediment in that further shift to the right.
The complaint or “issue du jour” for this session is the longstanding habit of appointing a small number of minority party chairmen. This has been a tradition in the Texas House (and Senate) as long as there has been a party in the minority (Republican or Democrat). While we wait to see the eventual committee assignments in both Houses, there is a good chance that there will be several Democratic chairs in the House at least. Last session there was only one Democratic chairman in the Senate, John Whitmire (D-Houston) who was chair of the Criminal Justice committee. We should know soon whether that trend continues.
Although the Senate committee assignments should be completed soon, the House will be a while coming. House members have been requested to submit their committee preferences by Thursday, January 26. The challenge by the Speaker and his team at that point is to arrange the puzzle between members, attempting to align their seniority requests with the Speaker’s desires and construct committees that can function to accomplish the work that the House needs to complete. Think of a wall of puzzle sticky note pieces with names on them being moved around to complete a picture. It’s not an easy task considering all that is attempting to be accomplished with the finished picture.
As of today, approximately 2,000 bills and resolutions have been filed—more than 1,450 House bills and about 500 Senate bills. Many deal with property tax reductions, and, after listening to both the Lt. Governor and Governor inaugural speeches, I think it is pretty certain that we will see property taxes reduced. Although it sounds like a significant amount of money, most of the proposals would result in less than $200 per year on the average home. This is certainly better than nothing, but not by much.
In addition, both the Governor and the Lt. Governor mentioned (to varying degrees) improving the power grid and school vouchers. The voucher discussion has never been particularly serious during past sessions, with a coalition of rural Republican and Democratic House members coming together to defeat any effort. Although the Governor talked about his support of school choice during the campaign, the Lt. Governor qualified his support with the desire to protect rural communities. How far this effort progresses remains to be seen. Regardless, this type of issue manages to remove lots of oxygen from the room and eat up lots of legislative time.
Water has figured in both Governor and Lt. Governor agendas as well. It has been many years since water was front and center of the legislative consciousness, and this discussion is greatly needed. With ongoing droughts and regular flooding now becoming our new normal, it is time for the state to take a leadership position on water and spend some of this unusual surplus on water infrastructure.
A number of other issues will also steal time from needed infrastructure discussions, including transgender considerations, abortion restrictions, border security, CRT, and other red-meat Republican issues. If past is prologue, I figure that bills will pass and be signed reflecting these interests.
The General Appropriations Bills have been filed. Lots of water still to pass underneath this bridge, as this is just a beginning. Both the House and Senate bills are very similar emphasizing tax relief, school funding, and border security. Although both spend similar amounts, they, of course, differ in the details. Both bills leave approximately $50 billion on the table based on Comptroller Hegar’s budget estimate.
There are more than 120 days until the session is over. Hang on–it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
—Kyle Frazier, TWGGA Legislative Advocate