The 86th Texas Legislature has recently completed its biannual task and lawmakers are now back at home serving their respective districts.
I have some mixed feelings about how the Legislature performed this past session but overall I’m pleased. Lawmakers actually achieved key priorities and added some nice surprises. They promised and delivered on funding reforms for public education and property tax relief. House Bill 3 plunks an additional $4.5 billion into Texas schools, and increases the state funded “basic allotment” per student. It also provides $2 billion to give teachers a pay raise.
HB3 reduces local school property tax rates by about 13 cents per $100 valuation by the year 2021. That provides over $5 billion in property tax relief within two years. It also reins in tax rate growth by requiring taxing districts to get voter approval in order to exceed 3.5 percent rate increase in any year.
What I like about this is that it will require more transparency about tax rates. Many local governments like to boast that they’ve held the line or even reduced tax rates over a period of time, but they don’t mention that property values have risen so high that they’re actually collecting more in taxes.
Trust me, city and county officials hate this bill. They say it takes away local control and hamstrings them from doing their job. From a certain perspective they are correct. From a taxpayer perspective, however, it’s nice to know that the actual amount of taxes collected won’t rise more than 3.5% without voters giving approval.
With property taxes skyrocketing out of control and taxing entities each blaming one another, it took the Legislature to step in and say enough. The Legislature has also pumped enough money into public education to help balance its share of the financial burden. Now local school districts won’t have to keep raising property taxes to fill in where the state was coming up short.
The new funding formula will direct more resources to students who are economically disadvantaged, those learning English, and those with dyslexia. It creates an optional July term for eligible students and full-day, quality pre-kindergarten programs for students from low-income backgrounds. The only outcomes-based funding rewards schools for every student they graduate ready for college, the workforce or the military.
If school finance reform and property tax relief were not enough, the Legislature provided a number of Hurricane Harvey relief measures, many of them authored by our own Sen. Lois Kolkhorst. Lawmakers also shored up the state teachers’ retirement system, which was long overdue for an overhaul.
They also provided funding to increase capacity at state drivers’ license offices (which is greatly needed) and to eliminate the backlog on rape kit testing. $7.8 billion is being pumped into mental health programs across 23 state agencies, and $347 million is going to women’s health programs.
Although it would take too long to name all the things accomplished by the Legislature, there are a few special items that I find pleasing. The first is a bill that raises the age to purchase tobacco or other nicotine products from 18 to 21. Another bans the use of red-light cameras in Texas. This isn’t such a big deal in Austin County, but it has significant impact in Sugar Land, where I spend a lot of my time.
As a volunteer at Brazos Bend State Park and a member of the Texas Army (a historical re-enactment group), I am thrilled with Kolkhorst for authoring and passing Senate Joint Resolution 24 and Senate Bill 26. Under those bills, the entire amount of the state’s sporting good sales tax will be constitutionally dedicated to parks and historic sites. It’s pained me to see how our parks and historic sites have suffered from neglect and overuse due to a lack of funding. Now they will have dependable income and the ability to better manage and protect these vital resources.
Kolkhorst can also take credit for having a hand in many Legislative accomplishments, including several related to healthcare and mental health.
She didn’t always get her way in Austin, but Kolkhorst is getting attention with her bills to reform eminent domain laws to better protect the rights of property owners.
It will be very interesting to see how things unfold over the next two years before the Legislature meets again. Kolkhorst is clearly a rising star in state politics, and we are very fortunate to have her representing us in Senate District 18. She and her colleagues in Austin took some risks with the budget and other legislation this year – bold moves to be applauded. How they play out remains to be seen, but it sure beats the inaction of the previous Legislature and the problems that caused.
Now, if we can just get our representatives in Washington to pay attention to what we’re doing here in Texas, maybe we could see some real reform happening on a national level. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that’s too much to ask for when it appears that Republicans and Democrats are more concerned about stopping the progress of the other side rather than working together for the good of all people.
(Faith, Family & Fun is a personal column by Joe Southern. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Sealy News, its staff or advertisers.)