In an unexpected move late yesterday, both the Texas House and Senate wrapped up their business, adjourning sine die, a day in advance of the official end of the 30-day, first called special session, essentially setting up continued speculation about prospects of a 2nd Special to address several priorities that remain unresolved, including property tax reform, special needs vouchers, state and government spending caps, expediting local permits, texting preemption, and the bathroom bill.
As reported earlier in the week, it came down to two issues that had been the subject of intense negotiations over the past few days – school finance reform and property tax reform. The school finance bill (HB 21) was in the House and the property tax reform (SB 1) was before the Senate.
After standing at ease for several hours, House Public Education Chair, Dan Huberty brought HB 21 back before the body – asking the body to concur in the Senate Amendments. It is important to note that HB 21 was drastically changed in the Senate. When it passed the House, the measure provided approximately $1.8 billion to the state public school system. The version that Senate produced and sent back to the House had whittled that number down to approximately $300 million. Additionally, the Senate rolled in other provisions including hardship grants for at risk districts, facilities funding for charter schools, funding for autism programs and $212 million for TRS Care – the much needed funds to help retired teachers with their health insurance premiums. It also put in place the mechanism to establish a statewide commission to study school finance. By rolling all these issues into one bill, many House members felt like the bill pitted retired teachers against school children, charter schools against traditional public schools, and ultimately did very little to improve the school finance system. It was clear that Chairman Huberty and the members of the Public Education Committee did not like what the Senate product they were putting before the House, but clearly were between a rock and a hard place as the Senate refused to budge in the negotiations. Once HB 21 passed, the House took up a few other matters and then adjourned Sine Die – a move that was unexpected.
SB 1, the property tax reform bill, has been in the Senate since Monday, August 14, and with the House adjourning Sine Die, it put the Senate in a “take it or leave it” position with the measure. You probably remember, that this weekend, after much negotiation, the House passed an amended version of SB 1 by Bettencourt, voting 98-43 to require elections when larger cities and counties increase tax collections on existing buildings and land by 6% compared to the prior year. SB 1 as passed by the Senate before being changed in the House, set the rollback election threshold at 4% (current law is 8%). Not surprisingly, following the “our way or no way” stance that has typified differences on major policy issues and priorities between the two chambers, both in the regular and special session, the Senate chose to leave it and asked the Governor to call a 2nd Special Session on the matter.
At this point it remains unclear as to whether the Governor got enough of his action items passed to consider the Special Session a win, or if property tax reform will have him calling members back a second time. However, not surprisingly to capitol insiders, today the Governor is laying blame at the feet of the House and with Speaker Straus. In a radio interview this morning, Abbott made the following statement, “I’m disappointed that all 20 items that I put on the agenda did not receive the up-or-down vote that I wanted but more importantly that the constituents of these members deserved.” He went on to add, “They had plenty of time to consider all of these items, and the voters of the state of Texas deserved to know where their legislators stood on these issues.” In sum, Governor Abbott saw 12 bills relating to 10 (50%) of his 20 action item call make it to his desk.