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Tighter Texas budget looms as lawmakers return for another session

State lawmakers will descend on Austin today for the 85th Legislative Session, facing a tight fiscal picture, varying priorities from their leaders and all the politics that naturally accompany the last regular session before statewide elections.

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They're back.

State lawmakers descend on Austin on Tuesday for the 85th Legislative Session, facing a tight fiscal picture, varying priorities from their leaders and all the politics that naturally accompany the last regular session before statewide elections. And it all comes just weeks after a turbulent presidential election that saw a polarizing Republican nominee pull off a stunning upset, ushering in a new era of GOP control in Washington. 

The session will no doubt be colored by Comptroller Glenn Hegar's announcement Monday that legislators will have $104.87 billion in state funds to work with in crafting the next two-year budget, a 2.7 percent decrease from his estimate ahead of the previous session. The glum revenue estimate, partly due to a prolonged downturn in oil prices, will probably force lawmakers to make some tough decisions, with one top lawmaker saying Monday that there are "obviously going to be cuts to the budget." 

On Tuesday, one of the first orders of business will be electing a House speaker. For the first time since he originally took the gavel in 2009, Joe Straus is heading into the first day of session without any clear leadership challenger, making it likely the San Antonio Republican will win his fifth term as speaker. That would tie the record for the longest tenure held by a Texas House speaker. 

The state's big three leaders — Straus, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — have somewhat differed in the issues they are emphasizing but share some common causes. Among them is fixing the state's troubled child welfare system, which a federal judge has said often leads to children leaving "state custody more damaged than when they entered." All three want to improve education in Texas, though Straus has urged more of a focus on public school funding, while Patrick has been emphatic about the need for private school choice. 

The lieutenant governor has been by far the most aggressive of the three in making clear his priorities, releasing a total of 25 ahead of the session. The list includes Senate Bill 6 — the so-called "bathroom bill" — which would require transgender Texans to use the restroom that corresponds with their "biological sex." The legislation faces stiff opposition from the business community, which is warning that Texas could experience economic fallout similar to what North Carolina faced when its legislators pushed a comparable bill.

Abbott, who along with Straus has not expressed support for SB 6, will get a chance to lay out his priorities in his State of the State address later in the session. He has already made known he wants the Legislature to pass a resolution backing his high-profile push for a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution, and he has asked lawmakers to crack down on so-called "sanctuary cities" that defy federal immigration law.

Broadly, one big consideration voiced by Abbott and other Republicans is how much relief Texas can expect from the administration of incoming GOP President Donald Trump, especially on issues of border security, health care and spending in general. For the first time in eight years — since Democratic President Barack Obama took office — Texas Republicans are hopeful that they will not be at war with the federal government. 

Yet GOP lawmakers are also aware that the dramatic change Trump promises will not happen overnight and that they must have realistic expectations. 

"We need to be sure that we effectively pass the baton smoothly," state Sen.-elect Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said in an interview Monday. "It's not like President Trump is going to be sworn in and on Day 1 he's going to fix all our border problems, so my goal is to achieve complete operational control of the border and get rid of the lures, such as sanctuary cities, that bring people here." 

In many ways, the session will serve as a prelude to the 2018 elections, when many statewide officials — not to mention the usual round of legislators — are up for re-election. Every non-judicial statewide official has plans to run again except for Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, whose office said Wednesday she has not made a decision yet. Hegar's office specified that he intends to run for re-election but is currently focused on the session and plans to speak with his family this summer before making an announcement. 

Looking to put to rest long-running rumors that he is interested in the governorship, Patrick made clear Monday that he is seeking another term — and endorsing Abbott for re-election. During a fiery news conference at the Texas GOP headquarters, Patrick said he hoped the announcement would prevent politics from getting in the way of a productive session. 

"We have an important session coming up," Patrick told reporters. "We just received the revenue estimate. The numbers are below last year’s budget. We have a number of issues to take up. I don’t want any distractions." 

The political battle lines during the session will not be too different than what they were last session. In the 2016 elections, Republicans lost a few seats in the 150-member House, where they still outnumber Democrats by a roughly 2-to-1 margin. The partisan makeup did not change in the Senate, where there remain 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats. 

Democrats will again find themselves fighting to derail Republicans' most inflammatory proposals, with SB 6 drawing the strongest reaction in recent days. At a news conference Monday with fellow Democrats, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston said constituents are not voicing concerns about regulating bathrooms and suggested it is a distraction from more important issues such as ensuring poor students have a better shot at a quality education. 

"Unless we all stand united as we are here today, we won’t get to do this for our fellow Texans," Garcia told reporters. "We’ll be here all 140 days, and come May we will have nothing on our hands."

SB 6 is one of a number of proposals this session that are expected to pit lawmakers against local officials. The biggest point of tension could be Senate Bill 2, which, among other things, seeks to lower the amount local governments can raise property taxes without voter approval. 

Here are other issues to watch as the 85th session begins:


Women's Health 

Texas legislators have already filed a number of abortion-related bills, including proposals that would require the burial of fetal remains, end insurance coverage for abortion and ban "dismemberment abortions," a procedure anti-abortion advocates say involves removing an unborn baby from the womb limb by limb. The state is in court this month for a final decision on its already existing fetal remains burial rule and for a hearing in a lawsuit over whether it can kick Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. 

Department of Family and Protective Services

Amid continued fallout from a 2015 ruling by a federal judge that Texas' foster care system violated children's constitutional rights, lawmakers in December have already authorized a $150 million infusion for the Department of Family and Protective Services to hire 829 new caseworkers and give $12,000 raises to current staff. And in November, court-appointed special masters released a report recommending an overhaul of CPS work culture, including decreased caseloads and more training and mentorship to help new hires. In addition to funding, lawmakers will have to keep an eye on the ongoing federal court battle.

Hailstorm lawsuit reform

Patrick also has named hailstorm lawsuit reform a top priority, targeting wealthy trial lawyers such as Steve Mostyn who bankroll Democratic campaigns. The influential tort reform group Texans for Lawsuit Reform claims that law firms including Mostyn's prey on hail-ravaged neighborhoods and offer to help residents milk more money from their insurance companies by filing lawsuits in bulk.  

Property tax 

SB 2 would probably bring cheers from homeowners in urban and suburban areas, who have seen their tax bills rise alongside their property values. But cities and school districts are expected to oppose the move, which they see as state lawmakers capping the revenues they need to keep up with everything from road maintenance to police officer and firefighter salary increases. Lowering the threshold for an election could score lawmakers political points from constituents whose annual tax bills keep rising — and since property taxes don't go to the state, the coffers the Legislature is responsible for won't be directly affected.

Criminal justice

Texans can expect a lot of attention on criminal justice issues to revolve around interactions with law enforcement. Some proposals include making it a hate crime to attack or kill a police officer, requiring schools to teach ninth-graders about how to interact with police and punishing law enforcement agencies that do not properly report officer-involved shootings. Patrick in particular has been outspoken about providing more support to Texas’ law enforcement officials, especially after a shooting last year in Dallas that killed five police officers and wounded seven others. He now wants the state to pay for all officers on patrol to have bulletproof vests that can withstand rounds from rifles.  

Ethics reform

Patrick has listed ethics reform as a top priority for the 85th session, and Abbott has told The Texas Tribune he wants lawmakers to enact "significant reforms into law this year." Abbott fast-tracked consideration of ethics reform two years ago and called on legislators to dedicate that session to the issue — only to see it crash and burn in the waning hours. Proposals this year include increasing transparency of lobbyist wining and dining, denying state pensions to legislator felons and requiring retiring lawmakers to sit out a full session before becoming lobbyists.

Energy and water

State lawmakers will again attempt to pass a bill reforming the Railroad Commission of Texas, the 125-year-old state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry. They have twice now failed to pass such legislation amid objections from the agency’s three elected commissioners — who watchdog groups and consumer advocates believe are too cozy with the oil and gas industry that largely bankrolled their campaigns. That has required the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission of Texas to review the agency repeatedly since 2010. The Sunset commission approved several noncontroversial overhaul recommendations in early November, passing on many changes that staffers had said would improve transparency and environmental oversight. Railroad commissioners and industry largely endorsed the ones they did approve.

With drought mostly in the rearview mirror, no major water legislation is expected, but some lawmakers are seeking significant tweaks to the state’s water planning and permitting processes.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush has said that rallying support for a coastal barrier protection system to guard against monster hurricanes will be among his top legislative priorities. 

Gun rights

Texas took two big steps forward for gun rights last session when lawmakers passed both open carry and campus carry legislation. Some conservative lawmakers are pushing for the state to go even further this session and pass "constitutional carry," which would give all Texans the right to openly carry a firearm — with or without a permit. While Patrick said Monday he does not know whether there is enough support for such a measure, he is prioritizing a bill that would reduce fees for carry licenses.

Border security

The Department of Public Safety wants almost $1 billion to beef up border security, but uncertainty surrounds how much the Trump administration's early moves will impact the need for that money. What's more clear when it comes to border issues heading into this session is that both chambers will take up "sanctuary cities" legislation, though the scope of those bills remains to be seen amid concerns about profiling. And conservative lawmakers will again push to get rid of in-state tuition for undocumented students, but that's another issue where Abbott, Patrick and Straus find themselves in different corners.

Alexa Ura, Marissa Evans, Jay Root, Aliyya Swaby, Johnathan Silver and Kiah Collier contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Steve Mostyn and Planned Parenthood have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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