The Texas Legislature will convene Jan. 8, 2019 for its 140-day regular session. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, were re-elected to serve a second term. The political makeup of the Texas Senate remains heavily Republican. With Lt. Gov. Patrick at the helm, the committee makeup is not expected to alter drastically. In the House, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) emerged as the front-runner to replace outgoing Speaker Joe Straus, who announced his retirement following the conclusion of the 2017 session. With 13 open seats, there will be many new faces in the House. The Democrats picked up 12 seats overall but the makeup remains heavily Republican in the 150-member lower chamber, at 83 Republicans to 67 Democrats. House committee makeup and chairmanships will hang in the balance until the speaker is formally in place in January.
Focus will be on the budget, as lawmakers tackle a $2 billion Medicaid shortfall left unaddressed from last session, as well as $2.5 billion for delayed transportation repairs and at least $1 billion for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. Lawmakers will debate tapping into the almost $12 billion in the Economic Stabilization Fund, or “Rainy Day Fund.” However, a two-thirds vote from both the House and Senate is required to utilize those funds. Comptroller Glenn Hegar has touted a plan that would involve investing a portion of the fund in higher-risk, higher-yielding options to create an “endowment portion.” However, any change in how Texas invests the “Rainy Day Fund” would require legislative approval.
Gov. Abbott has indicated that property tax reform will be his top priority in 2019. His plan would cap revenue increases for local taxing authorities at 2.5 percent per year, much to the chagrin of municipalities, counties and school districts across the state. However, school finance reform is required for the plan to work, since school funding makes up a large portion of local property taxes. Both property tax reform and school finance reform failed during the 2017 session. Rep. Bonnen has indicated that school finance reform will be the top priority for the Texas House if he is elected speaker.
All eyes are on increasing school safety and understanding school violence following the tragedy at Santa Fe High School in May 2018. During the interim, House and Senate committees were charged with determining the root of the problem and suggesting solutions. Their findings will be presented in some form of legislation next session.
Texas lawmakers face many issues in 2019, but short-term focus will be on the election of the speaker and his staff until a new leader is officially in place. Lawmakers will also determine how to appropriate funds to address delayed payments and Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.