The Texas Senate landed running for its 30-day special session July 18, whipped on by its presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
He wanted to quickly pass Sunset safety net bill legislation to keep five state agencies alive– the reason Gov. Greg Abbott called the session -- to get to his pet bathroom and property tax bills. They are two of the 19 subjects Abbott said he'd add after the Senate passed the Sunset bills.
Wednesday, ((July 19)) The Senate tentatively approved the Sunset bills. Patrick re-convened the Senate for final passage before 1 a.m. Thursday. Minutes later, Abbott added the other subjects.
There were bunches of people inside the capitol testifying before committees and lobbying legislators, and out front under a blazing sun protesting Abbott's priorities -- more abortion restrictions, telling transgender folks which potty to use, discouraging local government property tax hikes.
At an all-purpose rally on opening day, the crowd's signs were a guide to the hot issues being considered inside the building.
For instance, the "Women's Privacy Act," as Patrick calls his pet "bathroom bill," is opposed as discriminatory by LGBT folks, the Texas Association of Business, and much of the faith community.
-- "Let My People Pee."
--"Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere."
--"Abbott & Patrick:! Do not trade our freedom for fake safety."
Or, efforts to allocate public tax dollars for private school vouchers:
-- "My taxes, My decision. Fund our public school system."
Opponents accuse Abbott and Patrick and the Senate Republicans of hypocrisy on bathrooms, and new abortion prohibitions, and the property tax bill, of saying they are doing things for one purpose, while actually doing them for another.
Bathroom bill sponsors say it's to keep men from invading women's bathrooms and assaulting little girls. Opponents say it's actually to single out and shame transgender people – including kids.
Current laws already cover such assaults, in or out of bathrooms, said Jess Herbst, a transgender woman and mayor of New Hope, northeast of Dallas, to the Senate State Affairs Committee Friday. ((7/21))
Tourism officials said Texas has already lost $66 million in convention business because the legislature was considering the bathroom bill.
Tom Noonan of VisitAustin said groups say they will cancel another $133 million worth of conventions scheduled in Austin if the transgender bill passes.
On property taxes, the Senate authors want to change current law, that allows citizens to petition for a rollback election if a property tax hike exceeds eight percent, to having an increase over four percent automatically trigger a rollback election.
Austin Democratic State Rep. Donna Howard, in a commentary in the Austin American-Statesman July 19, said the state lawmakers pressuring local governments over property tax increases are the cause of the problem, because they shirk paying the state's fair share of school costs.
Texas property taxes have gone up because property values have gone up. But, Howard says, "instead of funneling those new dollars directly into the classroom or letting school boards give taxpayers a break, the state takes advantage of rising values by 'allowing' homeowners to pay an ever-greater portion of public school funding.
"Meanwhile, the state budgets fewer state dollars for school districts and uses that windfall elsewhere," Howard says. "This cost-shifting scheme effectively decreases the state’s share of school district funding when your property value increases."
Despite projected student population growth of 168,000 over the next two years, "the state actually will decrease its share of school district funding," Howard says.
Take charter schools out of the equation, she says, and "the state’s share of funding for local school districts —which educate 94 percent of Texas students — drops to 32 percent, leaving property taxpayers to pick up the rest."
But charter schools will actually gain $1.4 billion, Howard says.
"In other words, while the state is decreasing its share of school funding by almost $3 billion, your local property tax bills are increasing by almost $7 billion — though your schools are not seeing an increase in their funding."
Those billions in local taxes are "being used to cover population growth, provide new funding for charter schools and replace the $3 billion the state reduced to districts," Howard says – while state lawmakers have let the state's share of school funding drop to 32 percent.
She has proposed a constitutional amendment – House Joint Resolution 18 – to require the state to pay at least 50 percent of the cost of educating students.
"This is the only way to ensure that rising property values won’t continue to allow cost-shifting by the state," Howard says.
We'll see how Abbott fares with some of these hot potatoes.
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