By Patrick Svitek
The 86th Texas Legislature gaveled out Monday after a 140-day session that saw a major breakthrough on two big issues that have long bedeviled lawmakers: school finance and property taxes. But there were others ups — and downs — during the session. Here are several winners and losers in the session's immediate aftermath.
Winner: The "Big Three"
The session's leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and new state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — were able to project an image of unity from the start of the session through the end. There were a few perceived slights and strains, but no major disagreements spilled into public view as they did during the last session, when tensions ran high among Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen's predecessor, Joe Straus. While their individual scorecards may vary, Bonnen probably had the best session of the three leaders, making a mostly drama-free debut as speaker whose honeymoon period never seemed to really end. Together, though, the Big Three get credit for maintaining a united front and keeping a bread-and-butter agenda on track through the finish line.
Loser: Supporters of the sales tax swap
In perhaps the only real low point for the Big Three, their proposal to raise the sales tax by 1 cent to buy down property taxes collapsed in a matter of days in early May. It quickly ran into stiff opposition from Democrats — whose support was necessary to pass the corresponding legislation — and prompted skepticism from some on the right, including from Patrick's top ally in the Senate, Houston Republican Paul Bettencourt. The Big Three held a last-ditch news conference to try to save the plan, but it only ran into further trouble hours later, when a devastating analysis came out that illustrated just how much the proposal would benefit those with higher incomes at the expense of those with lower incomes. While lawmakers ultimately found another way to provide property tax relief, the ghost of the sales tax swap will likely live on — in the 2020 election season.
Winner: The center right
If you were the kind of Republican hoping this session would be the opposite of the last one — when phrases like "bathroom bill" and "sanctuary cities" dominated headlines every week — you probably walked out of the Capitol on Monday a happy camper and feeling a little less stressed about your reelection. While the Legislature debated its fair share of controversial, red-meat bills this session, not nearly as many derailed the day-to-day legislative process as in 2017. Chalk it up to the Big Three's unified focus on school finance and property taxes, but also don't forget the November elections, when voters chose to replace two senators and 12 representatives with Democrats. It's hard not to see those results tempering Republicans' appetite for polarizing legislation even before the session began.
Loser: The far right
The voices that have successfully pushed the Legislature further to the right in previous sessions didn't seem to have as much to show for their efforts this time around. While they helped rally opposition to the sales tax swap, they nonetheless ended up unenthused with the final product on school finance and property taxes, questioning whether it was too little too late. A number of their other priorities fell short, such as a controversial elections bill that the House left for dead late in the session and a "taxpayer-funded lobbying" ban that the House voted down. And on a perennial cause of conservative activists, curtailing abortion access, activists watched as several other states passed sweeping restrictions this spring while the Texas Legislature settled for a couple of far less ambitious measures.
Winner: Police unions
After the House struggled to pass two measures abhorred by the top police unions in the state late in the session, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and others went on the attack, ultimately getting their way. Their main target was a bipartisan bill to limit a police officer's ability to arrest an individual for low-level crimes, like traffic offenses, a key provision removed from the Sandra Bland Act passed by lawmakers in 2017. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, repeatedly sought to advance that provision — as well as another one dealing with public records — but CLEAT fought it every step of the way. The Senate refused to agree to have those provisions added as amendments to its bills, and both measures were ultimately stripped from the original bills in end-of-session negotiations.
Loser: The business community
The session saw the unexpected death of a top priority for the business community: overturning local ordinances requiring private employers to provide paid sick leave. It looked like a slam dunk heading into the session, with Abbott vowing months before the session that lawmakers would invalidate such ordinances, which had been popping up in several left-leaning cities. But the legislation got bogged down in a debate over protecting nondiscrimination ordinances and missed a key late-session deadline, leaving the business community frustrated and looking to the courts as a last resort. The business community might've scored some smaller wins, but on its most visible priority, its left the Capitol on Monday empty-handed.
Winner: Veteran teachers
Experienced teachers are making out the best in the pay raises passed by the Legislature for teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors. School administrators are required to use part of their funding increase to prioritize raises and benefits for teachers with more than five years of experience — though without a specific mandate on exactly how. The actual number will vary widely district by district — in many, falling well short of the $5,000 across-the-board raise Patrick promised at the start of the session — but it is nonetheless a win for the most seasoned teachers in Texas.
The GOP-led Legislature has always had a rocky relationship with local governments, though this session seemed to mark rock bottom in recent memory. Republicans pushed through property tax reform — featuring limits on local governments' ability to raise revenue without voter approval — over the fierce objections of groups like the Texas Municipal League, once one of the most influential legislatives forces in Austin. Lawmakers simultaneously took direct aim at that influence with a proposed ban on "taxpayer-funded lobbying." It ultimately failed to pass the House, but the fact that it made it that far underscored some lawmakers' long-building frustrations with local governments and their advocates.
Loser: David Whitley
This one is obvious. The Senate adjourned Monday without confirming David Whitley, Abbott's nominee for secretary of state, embattled since launching his botched voter citizenship review in late January. It generated ample political drama and led to several legal challenges, culminating in a late April settlement in which Whitley agreed to end the review. Abbott stuck by his former aide throughout the firestorm, apparently holding out hope as recently as Monday morning that the Senate could still confirm him. But with Democrats firmly opposed — and on high alert in the home stretch — Whitley never got confirmed, and now Abbott has to pick a new secretary of state.
Jolie McCullough and Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.
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