Texans are facing tremendous challenges, and after the new year, state lawmakers will finally have their chance to draft legislation that responds — or doesn't — to the biggest issues of the day. How do newly elected officials, old-guard incumbents and Capitol insiders see the state of things heading into the 2023 legislative session?
The Texas Tribune hosted on Thursday an event to explore state lawmakers’ top priorities going into the 2023 legislative session. Here are the highlights.
Politics and the 2023 legislative session
At a panel about the upcoming legislative session, three Texas politics reporters discussed the likely priorities of Republican lawmakers.
“Property tax is gonna be the biggest issue,” said Brad Johnson, a senior reporter at The Texan.
The other two panelists, Niki Griswold of the Austin American-Statesman and James Barragán of The Texas Tribune, agreed. Johnson said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott “wants to use at least half of the state’s $27 billion on directly cutting property taxes,” which would go over the $12.5 billion spending cap established by rules in the Texas Constitution.
Another big issue forecasted for this session would be school vouchers, which Griswold said “historically has been a battle between more rural Republicans and urban Republicans, who overwhelmingly support that issue.” Griswold added that she could see “fissures in the Republican Party” emerge over the issue. — Trent Brown
Three new members of the Texas Legislature reflected on their priorities for the upcoming session and how they are preparing for it.
State Sen.-elect Morgan LaMantia, D-Brownsville, said her district wants lawmakers to understand that “family is the most important thing.” For example, she said her constituents want to ensure their families have health care that is affordable and accessible.
State Rep.-elect Salman Bhojani, D-Euless, said voters want members to focus on “more kitchen-table issues” rather than legislation targeting transgender children, for example.
State Rep.-elect Charles Cunningham, R-Humble, mentioned that improving the power grid is “high on our agenda.” He cited his experience working for CenterPoint Energy, the Houston-based utility company.
One audience member asked how the incoming legislators plan to prevent the next mass shooting after the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde in May. LaMantia and Bhojani, the Democrats, called for more school safety but also voiced support for new gun restrictions. LaMantia said she has seen a consensus that “we need to put in place background checks, age limits when it comes to automatic weapons and look at red-flag laws as well.” — Patrick Svitek
The state has already spent more than $4 billion on Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star since last summer. A bipartisan group of border officials discussed how Texas should shift its tactics on border security in the upcoming legislative session.
As border regions have become overwhelmed with growing numbers of migrants crossing the border, state Rep. Eddie Morales, D-Eagle Pass, said he has talked to Abbott about a workforce program that’d allow migrants to seek asylum more easily and stay in the state, provided they get a job.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results,” Morales said. “Are we going to address the real issue so we’re not just throwing money at it, year after year after year?”
Operation Lone Star has imprisoned thousands of migrants, most often on charges of trespassing on private property. And while state leaders continue to siphon money out of other state agencies to fund the governor’s mission, the number of migrants crossing the Texas-Mexico border has grown.
Republicans and Democrats on the panel supported Morales’ proposition, with McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos noting the state was forced to navigate possible solutions to immigration problems due to congressional failures.
The Republican said he was interested in Morales’ proposal, “but I don’t know if that’s something we can do because it’s a federal issue.” — Jolie McCullough
School safety, teacher retention and vouchers are three of the biggest public education issues legislators hope to tackle in the upcoming legislative session.
Since the Uvalde shooting, which was the deadliest school shooting in Texas, legislators have called for hardening school buildings to prevent future shootings. State Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, said it’s almost impossible to secure all the school buildings.
“The reality is, we’re still occupying a lot of buildings in this state that were built 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, and safety was not really one of the primary concerns at that time,” VanDeaver said.
With school vouchers, which is a focus of Republican lawmakers despite misgiving from rural Texans, legislators hope to create a pathway to fund private schools with public dollars by allowing parents to choose the schools their children attend.
State Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said that instead of focusing on giving families a way to abandon struggling public schools, the state should work to improve those institutions through improved teacher retention and better tutoring resources.
Dutton and VanDeaver cited increasing pay in the upcoming session as one way to strengthen the educator pipeline, which has left Texas schools with a persistent teacher shortage. — William Melhado
As the health care system faces a third year shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, a bipartisan group of officials stressed a need to expand Medicaid in the next legislative session.
“It is something that will tremendously benefit our state,” Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “We’re way behind the ball.”
Texas is among 11 states that have not expanded Medicaid, creating a major insurance coverage gap. The state has consistently led in the number of uninsured residents.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a shortage of physicians in the state. Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, said Texas needs to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates to bring physicians back into the fold.
Democrats have filed bills for the next session to expand postpartum Medicaid to 12 months. Allison called bringing postpartum Medicaid to 12 months a “no-brainer.” Other House Republicans, including Speaker Dade Phelan, have also said this needs to be a top priority.
Expanding Medicaid gained momentum last year when the House voted to give new moms access to Medicaid for a year after they gave birth. But the Senate reduced that period to six months. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has said that the state’s application is “not approvable,” while applications for 12-month extensions were automatically approved.
Allison said he would consider adding rape and incest exceptions to the state’s abortion ban, but he doesn’t expect such a bill to gain traction in the Senate. — Sneha Dey
Heading into the next legislative session, lawmakers may be split on how to provide Texas with property tax relief.
During a Texas Tribune panel Thursday, state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, said one of the best ways the state can provide property tax relief to Texans is to use the state’s $27 billion surplus to raise funding for public education, public health care, courts and other property tax-funded institutions.
If the state provides these institutions with more money then they can lower their tax rates, Eckhardt said.
“The state pays for less and less every year,” she said. “The biggest property tax relief is if the state would structurally fund statewide needs.”
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he and Eckhardt differed on the issue.
“I don't want to ever get near a statewide property tax system,” Bettencourt said. “It would be grossly complicated and difficult to do.”
Both agreed that the state’s surplus can be used for property tax relief — the issue will be agreeing on how much to use and where to spend the funds.
Gov. Greg Abbott wants to use about half of the surplus toward property tax relief, but it would go over the state’s spending cap, which was set by a panel of legislators led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan. Patrick instead would like to see the state raise the homestead exemption to $60,000. — Brian Lopez
Sponsors help make our events possible. Thank you to Gulf States Toyota, Texas Hospital Association, TEXAS 2036, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, and Office of Public Insurance Counsel for supporting this event.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.
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