AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – Texas lawmakers will be sworn in Tuesday for the 86th legislative session after receiving good news about the budget for the next two years.
The House will also elect a new Speaker, presumably Republican Dennis Bonnen of Angleton in the Houston area.
Outgoing Speaker, Republican Joe Straus, decided against running for re-election.
On Monday, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar delivered optimistic news about the 2020-21 biennium.
Hegar announced the legislature will have $119.12 billion in general revenues to spend during the next two year budget, an 8.1 percent increase from the 2018-19 biennium.
In addition, by the end of the 2020-21 budget year, the state’s savings account, also known as the rainy day fund, will have as much as $15.4 billion before lawmakers decide to allocate some of that money.
Republican State Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano said, “What the revenue estimate shows us the state’s economy is strong, it’s robust, it’s growing. That’s a good position for us to be in as we face some pretty big budget decisions this session.”
Democratic State Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas said, “Having more revenue, yes, good. Absolutely a good thing. I’m hopeful we will allocate some of that revenue increase to increasing the state commitment to public education and reduce the local tax driven portion of what we spend on education.”
The additional revenue will likely help lawmakers as they try to reduce the amount of property taxes used to pay for public schools and instead, increase state money to fund schools.
Some experts have said for that to happen, the state will have to come up with billions of dollars.
Representative Leach said, “What I know for certain is that we do need to spend more state funds in education. We need to invest, we need to reform, and improve, but we need to make sure those funds are getting to the right places: to our teachers and to our actual campuses.”
To help find some money, Governor Greg Abbott has proposed increasing the portion of oil and gas severance taxes that’s allocated for schools.
Representative Johnson agrees. “I’m with the Governor on that. We should be looking at all kinds of ways to lower the burden on local property taxpayers because as most people are aware, public schools are the largest driver of your local property tax bill.”
Johnson said some lawmakers may propose boosting the state sales tax, an idea he opposes.
Democratic State Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr. of Fort Worth said the money for public schools will have to come from somewhere. “Where’s that money going to come from? Are we going to raise the gas tax? Are we going to eliminate other types of exemptions?”
The Texas Commission on Public School Finance recently called for reallocating $3.5 billion in funds that would raise the per student allotment from more than $5,100 to $5,800.
It also recommended $1.7 billion in new money for students to help make sure third graders are reading at the required level.
Money would also be included to boost pay for good teachers.
In addition, the Commission called for reducing what’s been called Robin Hood, in which the state requires property-wealthy school districts to give back millions of dollars each year to the state.
The Plano ISD says it has had to return nearly $2 billion to the state since its inception.
Incoming State Senator Angela Paxton, wife of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, said “With a disciplined approach over a decade or so, we could eliminate Robin Hood altogether. I think that’s an important issue in our state.”
Another top priority is property tax reform.
Governor Abbott has proposed a cap on property tax revenue increases for cities, counties, and school districts of 2.5 percent.
The municipal governments and school districts would have to vote on raising revenue further.
Many cities, counties, and school districts oppose the idea.
Rep. Leach had a message for them. “Let’s work together, let’s lock arms, let’s deliberate together in providing that property tax relief that our constituents, Republicans and Democrats all across this state are calling for. If we work together, we can make it happen.”
Rep. Johnson disagreed. “I don’t want to tie the hands unnecessarily of mayors and city councils. I don’t want to unnecessarily tie the hands of our school districts, our superintendents, our school boards or of our county governments by putting in artificial revenue caps.”
Regarding the likely new Speaker, Dennis Bonnen, he is being praised by both Republicans and Democrats alike.
Rep. Romero said, “I think he has shown in many different ways that he is going to be a great listener. He has called us, he has called me multiple times. He has texted me. He’s a great communicator.”
Rep. Leach said, “He’s going to be committed to ensuring that petty, personal politics doesn’t get in the way of us focusing on the real solutions that matter to this state.”
Sen. Paxton said she believes lawmakers won’t get sidetracked by other issues this session and will remain focused on school finance reform and property tax reform. “I think we’re going to see a meat and potatoes approach this session. I know the tone that I see, the attitude I’m seeing and that I just sense is really one of collaboration and of optimism.”