With fewer than 14 days left in the 88th Legislative Session, there are still many unanswered questions. Will a budget compromise be reached, will a voucher program of some type be established, what will the property tax situation look like, and will anything be done on behalf of our schools and their employees?
Here are a couple of questions that have been answered so far this session.
There won’t be any new gambling in Texas this year.
Former Representative Bryan Lee Slaton (R-Royse City) will not be voting on the budget, school vouchers, or anything else for that matter; he was expelled from the Texas House. The last time someone was expelled was 1927.
If all of this sounds like the setup for an evening soap opera or a particularly juicy telenovela, you are correct. Throw in a $160 billion budget that must be passed by August 31 and a $32 billion surplus, and you have the makings of excellent theatre.
The unique “strangeness” of this session was to be expected before the session even began. With the large budget surplus and the number of new members in both the House and Senate, the stage was set for deals done, deals undone, big ideas dashed, and ultimately, promises unfulfilled. In other words, it was the making of a typical legislative session—just amplified.
So far in that aspect this session has not disappointed. As of today, a budget still eludes the grasp of those making decisions. Of the 8,000-plus bills and resolutions introduced this session, the only one that must pass is the budget. So far, nada. Is there time? Sure, but is there a willingness? If an issue like vouchers is to pass, the promoters of that issue must have something with which to bargain. If the budget is passed (a budget that likely to include points of interest to individual members), then the ability to use those interests to entice support of something that the member otherwise might be against evaporates. The budget is always an excellent bargaining tool.
And the Governor apparently wants some form of vouchers. And there still seems to be a group of rural republican House members who don’t want vouchers. An unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Somethings got to give and usually does. We are not there yet.
Another issue of interest is, of course, property taxes. The two bodies are still quite a bit apart on this issue and what the final version might entail. The most recent version of the House property tax legislation includes a 5% cap and $100,000 homestead exemption. Undoubtedly there is more to come on this issue, and this could also be a point of contention and cause a special session.
Currently, a total of eight bills dealing with alcoholic beverages have passed both Houses. I would categorize these as “industry” bills, not penal code changes. Of those industry bills, three are changes on behalf of the craft distillers, increasing their bottle sales from two to four, enabling distilled spirits to be sampled at a temporary event, and allowing the ability to contract distill. Other bills include temporary sales at racetracks, sales of “vintage” distilled spirits from collectors to a package store, the sale of wine collections to restaurants, allowing manufactures to provide transportation to a retailer or retailer’s agent, and the ability for distributors to provide malt samples to retailers. Several of these have already been signed by the Governor, and I would expect the rest to follow suit.
As of this time, there appears to be little in the way of potential alcoholic beverage code changes out there that could impact the wine industry (the good news).
The other news: Language was added to the budget bill within the section of the budget dealing with the TABC calling for a “study” conducted by the TABC titled the “Winery Permit Study.” This language was not a bill, it was not heard in committee or commented on by stakeholders, and it did not go through any of the normal legislative processes. This was added in a fashion to ensure concealment until the entire budget process and legislative session were completed. It was located purely by chance. It was added through the budget process by Vice Chairwoman of Appropriations Mary Gonzalez of El Paso. She has not been forthcoming to TWGGA leadership as to the source of this addition. TWGGA has attempted to have the language removed or changed through the process. We have had some minor success with amendments, but this is something our industry will have to deal with soon after the legislative session is completed. The implications of the results of the study could have a significant negative impact on many TWGGA members. We will continue to keep members informed and how they can participate in the study going forward. For those with a long memory, this is very similar to the “Carona” study from 2013.
Our other main request this session were research dollars allocated to Texas Tech University, University of Texas, and Texas A&M University to conduct viticulture research through the creation of the Texas Grape and Wine Institute. Working with our higher education partners we requested funding for each university in the amount of $10 million for a total of $30 million. This request is still being considered. We should have an answer soon. Hopefully the budget will be resolved sometime this week. If the budget continues to be aligned with the voucher issue, then the budget may not be resolved, this week or next.
Can all this and other exciting and pressing issues be resolved in 14 days? Stay tuned. The cliffhanger continues.
—TWGGA Legislative Advocate Kyle Frazier