Property tax reform and relief, school finance and Hurricane Harvey recovery were the cornerstones of Texas’ 86th Legislature, according to state Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring, and state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.
The two legislators reflected on the session, which wrapped up May 27, during a North Houston Association luncheon June 18. The event was moderated by Steve Head, the chancellor of Lone Star College System, who also shared his insight on higher education-related legislation.
Creighton, who has served in the state Senate since 2014, is chairperson for both the Higher Education and Texas Ports, Select committees; vice chairperson for the Water & Rural Affairs committee; and serves on the State Affairs, Property Tax and Business & Commerce committees.
Harless, who was a freshman this session, serves on the State Affairs Committee and the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee. According to Harless, approximately 7,500 bills were filed during the 86th Legislative session. Of those, Creighton said just more than 1,000 passed into law.
“It’s pretty significant that we passed Senate Bill 2, which was the property tax reform package, and House Bill 3 all in one session,” Harless said.
SB 2, authored by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, is expected to provide property tax relief to homeowners by requiring taxing entities such as cities and counties to receive voter approval before receiving 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year, according to The Texas Tribune, Community Impact Newspaper‘s reporting partner. The legislation also mandates community colleges and hospital districts will need to hold an election before surpassing 8% property tax revenue growth.
“In the 1980s, when the current 8% rollback was put into place, testimony on the Senate floor was that we had double-digit inflation … and Texans deserve when inflation comes back down, for us to readjust that number back down on their behalf,” Creighton said. “Well, we waited 45 years to do so. As your appraisal goes up, no longer, with the passage of this bill, can it be used as a weapon against you.”
HB 3, authored by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, aims to tackle school finance by allocating $6.5 billion to improve public education and pay teachers and another $5.1 billion to lower school district taxes, according to The Texas Tribune.
“Before … the state was paying about 38%, and [taxpayers]were paying the difference,” Harless said. “After the school finance reform bill went through, the state’s paying up to 45%, so it’s a 7% difference that’s going to make a big difference for everybody.”
Creighton added HB 3 is the third most significant overhaul of school finance and school funding in 84 years.
In addition to SB 2 and HB 3, nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Gulf Coast in August 2017, flood mitigation was still at top of mind for many state legislators this session, Creighton and Harless said.
SB 7, authored by Creighton, was one of four bills signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott aimed at bolstering the state’s emergency preparedness and disaster relief programs, providing more than $1.6 billion for flood control projects and repairs across the state, according to The Texas Tribune.
Specifically, SB 7 establishes two new funds, the Texas Infrastructure Resilience Fund and the Flood Infrastructure fund, to address the effects of Hurricane Harvey and prepare for future flooding and disasters, according to The Texas Tribune.
“In Texas, for decades, we’ve had a statewide water plan that the rest of the nation has revered, but we have not had a statewide flood plan, and this will solve those problems going forward,” Creighton said. “And that was a very, very difficult effort because … the rest of Texas that didn’t experience Harvey or doesn’t really feel that it’s possible that it could happen in their area, their priorities are elsewhere, so it was extremely difficult to get that legislation done.”
Head said Hurricane Harvey relief funding was the No. 1 priority for LSCS, as the community college system suffered roughly $44 million-$45 million in damages. He said while they requested $15 million at the state level to aid with recovery, they were pleased to receive $13.1 million.
“We had more damage at LSCS than all the other community colleges in the state combined,” Head said.
Creighton added within the last 48 hours of the 141-day session, he would have given SB 2, HB 3 and SB 7 a 40% chance of passing into law, based on how challenging it was to finalize the legislation.
One of Harless’ bills that did not become law this session was HB 738. The bill would have required bond conditions for those who had committed violent crimes to be entered into the Texas Crime Information Center database within 24 hours of the person’s release. Currently, Harless said those conditions are only entered into the arresting county’s database and not shared with neighboring counties.
“[A] perfect example [is]a guy was arrested in Harris County, and his ex-wife … moved up to Navarro County where her parents lived. He [is released and]heads up to Navarro County and gets pulled over for a speeding ticket, and there were no bond conditions in the computer. Fifteen minutes later, his wife was dead,” Harless aid. “If the deputy would have known that there were conditions that he had to stay out of the county where is wife or spouse resided in, she’d probably still be alive.”
Harless added he plans to file the bill again in the next legislative session, in hopes of it passing into law.
Likewise, Creighton said he was disappointed one of his bills, SB 15, did not pass into law this session. The bill would have preempted cities and other local governments from implementing employment benefit ordinances, which would affect the private sector.
Creighton added the city of Austin recently lost a lawsuit over an ordinance it had enacted to create mandatory sick leave policies on all businesses in and around the Austin area, as it was found to be in violation of the Texas Minimum Wage Act and was ruled unconstitutional.
“That’s why sick leave and benefits and scheduling are handled at the state level—because whatever policies are passed as a mandate on business, that is a mandate all across Texas and every business can have certainty and predictability,” he said. “It’s not patchwork and piecemeal, like you find in California, as those businesses leave in exodus for Texas year in and year out because of those policies being impossible to handle.”
Creighton added he now anticipates similar litigation in Texas’ future as the cities of San Antonio and Dallas have likewise passed similar ordinances.
Head also said there was a piece of legislation in the 2019 session that would have allowed school districts to break away from their assigned community college systems to join another of their choosing, such as LSCS.
“In the last two years, we’ve had seven other ISDs that belong to other community colleges … ask to join us. But under the law, it’s not allowed. So what we were asking for is legislation to allow the taxpayers to vote for whether or not they want to come in and join us … and that was turned back. There was opposition to it for all the wrong reasons to me, so you’ll be hearing more about that.”
In the interim leading up to the next legislative session, Harless said he plans to continue focusing on flooding and specifically legislation to prevent senior living facilities from being built within flood-prone areas.
“Flooding scares me; flooding ought to be the No. 1 issue for every [one]right now,” Harless said. “If we get another major flood, I promise you it would devastate this area and I don’t know if we’ll be able to rebound or not. People are going to stop moving here.”
Creighton said he will continue to seek a pro-business environment and policies for Texas, pursue higher education initiatives and continue to review the statewide tax policy.
“We have a referendum coming up that will allow you to vote to permanently ban in the state constitution personal income tax,” he said. “Many thought that was already in place, but it’s a weak provision, and what we did this time around will forever solidify that. We don’t want an income tax in Texas, so that means we’re going to continue to rely on property taxes and consumption taxes—sales tax.”
Creighton added while the session may be over, the work of legislators has only begun.
“Our work in the session is tremendous and exhausting at times. It’s full of purpose, and it’s something that we’re so privileged to do on your behalf, but it doesn’t stop when the session ends,” he said. “The entire interim is full of day-by-day working toward the next session and all of the issues that did not get accomplished and what your priorities will be going forward.”