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During busy Saturday session, House moves on key pieces of legislation

After moving at a glacial pace several times this Legislative session, the Texas House on Saturday kicked into high gear and passed measures that could help them avoid a special session.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, in a heated debate with Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, about property tax legislation on May 20, 2017.

The Texas House on Saturday moved closer to finalizing key pieces of legislation — from property taxes to the state budget — that could help avoid a return trip to Austin for a special session to take care of unfinished business.

In fewer than five hours, the 150-member chamber passed a key change on property taxes, as well as a measure to extend the life of state agencies — after a bill that would have prevented their shuttering fell short of a key deadline last week.

After the chamber gaveled out, the House members of the budget conference committee announced, with their Senate colleagues, that they had reached a deal to finalize the state’s 2018-19 budget. Then they began going over the details of the budget in a meeting that stretched into the evening.

On property taxes, the lower chamber unanimously approved an amendment that contained key language from Senate Bill 2 — which, among other things, requires local governments to give constituents more information about proposed property tax increases — and attached it to Senate Bill 669

The House sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, had been trying to move the legislation for weeks, and it wasn’t scheduled to come to the House floor until early next week.

The Senate bill is an item Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has deemed must-pass legislation — he threatened on Wednesday to ask Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers back for a special session if that and other measures didn’t pass. Whether Bonnen’s amendment is enough for Patrick and the more conservative Senate is still unclear: Bonnen’s amendment lacked a key provision that would require voter approval for some tax rate increases, something  Patrick stated repeatedly he wanted included.

Though House members clapped Bonnen on the back and collectively breathed a hearty – though temporary – sigh of relief, the Senate can choose to reject the changes to Senate bill 669 and run out the clock on the Legislative session that ends May 29.

Next up was another amendment to avoid a special session on another matter – the shuttering of some state agencies.

An amendment by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, would extend the lives of several state agencies that were scheduled to “sunset” – or expire. A separate measure that dealt with that specific issue didn’t survive last week’s deadline for the House to pass bills on second reading.

But Price added his language to Senate Bill 80, a measure that seeks to streamline reporting requirements for state agencies. The Senate must now concur with the changes to SB 80 in order for Price’s amendment to survive.

“The goal of the amendment originally as contemplated would not have had to extend these agencies, but for the fact they were caught up in that last night on the calendar,” he said. “It goes hand in hand [so] yes, it had the effect of extending the agencies to 2021.”

The House also partially revived a school-lunch proposal that has tugged at Democrats’ heartstrings over the course of the last two weeks. After trying – and failing – three times to pass legislation to halt school districts from naming students without money in their school lunch accounts, Democrats finally amended a compromise version to a separate bill.

After the original bill by state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-De Soto, was repeatedly shot down by House Freedom Caucus members who objected to another unfunded mandate on schools, Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, added an amendment based on Giddings' bill to Bernal's Senate Bill 725, which would let school districts offer uneaten or donated food to a nonprofit to give to hungry students. 

The amendment would allow schools to give free meals to students with no money in their accounts — but wouldn't require schools to do so, which convinced the Freedom Caucus to finally let it through.

If the property tax and sunset proposals from the House placate Patrick and the Senate enough to cross those items off their hit lists, that would leave the "bathroom bill" as the only major stumbling block. The proposal would require that transgender people in Texas use public restrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate.

The House has until Tuesday to pass Senate bills, but legislation can still be amended after that deadline. 

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