83rd Legislature: winners and losers

A commonly stated goal of lawmakers is to do what is best for Texas, and it is true that somebody always wins when a bill passes.

But when legislators write some 5,000 new laws—as they did in the 83rd Legislature this year—there are also bound to be some who come up short.

Winners—High school students

No matter what else passed regarding education this session, most students will agree that they came out the winners when lawmakers scaled back the number of high-stakes end-of-course exams required to graduate from 15 to five.

It was a huge victory for students, teachers and parents who had been flooding legislators' offices with horror stories about 50 percent failure rates, the potential for massive numbers of dropouts, and stress-related health problems as a direct result of the constant EOC exam pressure.

There are disagreements over whether the Legislature went far enough in returning $3.9 billion to public education, including $500 million for retired teachers' pension increases, or whether students really win if access is increased to charter schools.

Proponents said the charter school measure strikes the right balance.

"This measure to increase availability, quality and transparency of our charter schools is an important step in the right direction for the schoolchildren of Texas," said Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin.

But the testing change was a victory by most Texans' definitions, and it was enough to surmount any squabbles over funding.

Broke even, by some definitions—Gun-rights advocates

Bills affirming the state's unwillingness to enforce federal gun restrictions did pass but are largely ceremonial. It was hardly considered a good session for the state's staunch gun-rights supporters who wanted campus-carry legislation, which failed.

Lawmakers also did not give serious consideration to open-carry proposals, though they did chip away at the requirements for some concealed handgun license holders and now allow students licensed to carry weapons to keep those weapons in their cars on campus.

Losers—Conservative grassroots groups

To hear them tell it, the 83rd Legislature was the most liberal in memory—and from the perspective of the Christian-right grassroots groups, it might as well have been.

Lawmakers focused on largely nonpartisan issues such as how to solve the state water crisis, how to give more money to public schools and how to deal with transportation funding.

These were all identified as popular priorities, but they left in the dust those who wanted legislation dealing with immigration, abortion and other social issues that are considered divisive and potentially troublesome for state leaders counting on a smooth session.

Winners—Homeowners

Legislation passed that would require homeowners associations to allow some sort of xeriscaping, which helps battle drought and which some HOAs were reportedly blocking. The legislation does allow the HOAs to set rules, but says they cannot ban native xeriscaped landscaping altogether.

And while insurance bills went nowhere, lawmakers forced out Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman, who approved several homeowners insurance rate hikes during her time in office.

Broke even—Undocumented immigrants

Advocates say that in the next two years, the number of uninsured drivers on Texas highways will skyrocket. Immigrants who have entered the country illegally now will not be allowed to renew their driver's license or get permits after lawmakers failed to continue a law that had allowed them to do so.

Otherwise, legislators declined to make the lives of undocumented immigrants more complicated—declining efforts to enact sanctuary city laws or require E-verify employment checks by employers.

Winners—Drinkers

Trust even the most conservative of Legislatures to uphold the rights of beer drinkers across the Lone Star State. Craft breweries won a major victory this session, and hence, so did their consumers, with legislation expanding the breweries' abilities to get their wares to thirsty Texans.

Under the new legislation, craft breweries can now operate tap rooms in which to serve their beers, and brewpubs can get their products to stores through distributors instead of depending 100 percent on on-site consumption.

Simply put? Everybody gets a happy hour.

Losers—Gamblers

While lawmakers upheld the rights and practices of drinkers, gamblers lost another round to the Baptists and the tea party, both of which fought vehemently against proposals calling for a statewide vote on allowing full-scale resort casinos to come to Texas.

The potential for billions of dollars in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs from the legislation could not sway opponents, who said they believe casinos prey on the poor and promote gambling addiction.

So the gamblers had to fold for another session.

Winners—Shelter animals

In general, fur, fish and fowl did not fare so well in the session, with lawmakers rejecting a ban on the shark fin market and declining to protect pets in domestic abuse situations.

But homeless pets scored a big win when the governor signed legislation banning gas chambers as a method of euthanizing animals in shelters, saying it was cruel and expensive. Measures to further protect homeless animals did not pass, but advocates said the new law was their biggest victory in many sessions.

Broke even—The poor

Republican state leaders and lawmakers declined to expand Medicaid for impoverished adults, pushed by the Affordable Care Act but not required, costing Medicaid tens of billions of dollars it would have received for their care.

They did pass a law requiring the drug screening of recipients of unemployment benefits seeking jobs in areas that require drug testing.

But they scored a victory when House Democrats blocked a measure that would have opened all welfare recipients to drug tests. Opponents considered that a positive outcome because, they said, such a program would have been expensive, demoralizing and discriminatory.

Winners—Small business

The biggest victory for small business was a bill making permanent a franchise tax cut that was set to expire over the next biennium. The bill permanently exempts businesses that make less than $1 million annually from paying the margins tax, guarantees a $1 million deduction to all businesses, and reduces the tax rate by 2.5 percent in each of the next two years.

"HB 500 will go far to improve Texas' business tax climate and job creation, and it is heartening to see it passed by the Legislature," said Chuck DeVore, vice president for policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "With businesses and entrepreneurs shouldering almost two-thirds of our state and local tax burden, what HB 500 accomplishes is nothing less than a direct boost to Texas jobs and prosperity. In making permanent the $1 million small-business tax exemption, HB 500 frees up our smallest job creators to focus on growing their businesses instead of worrying about the Texas Tax Code."

Another bill expanded the products artisan food producers are allowed to make and sell directly to the public with fewer restrictions, and legislation was passed to help urban farmers—thanks in large part to the bipartisan Texas House Farm-to-Table Caucus, the first legislative group of its kind in the nation.