The COVID-19 pandemic has cut revenues from state coffers, leaving the Legislature in a budget scramble.
Police accountability. Medicaid expansion. Voter access. Marijuana reform.
There’s no shortage of big issues for the Texas Legislature to grapple with when it convenes in January for the first time in two years.
There’s a problem, though. Texas is facing a budget shortfall of at least $5 billion — likely more — that will suck most of the oxygen out of the room. The COVID-19 pandemic has cratered the state’s economy, draining state coffers and raising questions about how much larger that deficit may grow.
What’s more, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle face pressure to maintain the increased school funding they approved last session, when they hammered together a plan that would give public schools a budget boost while limiting property taxes.
“This session is likely to be lean in terms of significant legislation passing,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “I think we’ll see the Legislature do what it usually does and cut its way to a balanced budget.”
Dealing with pandemic safety concerns is likely to further narrow the chances for major legislative accomplishments during the session, observers warn.
Details remain murky how the Lege will manage gathering during a public health crisis. However, the Dallas Morning News
, citing veteran lobbyist Bill Miller, reported that the Senate is likely to push to trim the session’s agenda and juggle just two meeting rooms between its 16 committees.
That’s not exactly good news for legislators hoping to tackle pressing issues this session. And the more than 550 bills filed at press time suggest there’s no shortage of weighty ones to debate.
For example: State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston filed the George Floyd Act, which includes a series of policing and criminal justice reforms. Meanwhile, State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, filed a measure to expand Medicaid eligibility, potentially allowing Texas to join the majority of states that have expanded coverage.
Dozens of bills filed in advance of the session also aim to expand voter access in the state, allowing wider access to programs such as drive-thru voting, which were rolled out during the pandemic.
“As soon as the pandemic hit, I began worrying about how our elections would play out,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a former clerk in the Voting Rights Office at the U.S. Department of Justice, told the Texas Tribune
. She’s already filed multiple pieces of voting-related legislation and plans to introduce more.
Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who introduced a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use, says bills like his could have a chance this session, if lawmakers see them as a means to fixing the state’s fiscal woes. He wants GOP lawmakers understand that if Texas fails to legalize, it will lose a needed revenue source and lose out on a budding business.
“Republican leadership has some preconceived notions that were created during the Nixon administration, and those don’t make much sense in today’s world,” he said.
But Republicans won’t exactly be in the mood to compromise, observers warn.
Despite predictions that Democrats might make serious gains in the Texas House, or even flip it in November, the GOP held onto its majority in both chambers. That means Republicans will still control the agenda, and they’re likely to focus what energy they can on their own pet projects.
The bills filed so far suggest conservatives are still intent on fighting out the culture this session. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, for example, filed a proposal to ban abortions at 12 weeks of pregnancy. Under current Texas law, abortions are prohibited after 20 weeks.
What’s more, Republicans are likely to continue efforts to strip power from municipalities, especially Democratic-controlled metros. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott said he’ll push for bills that punish cities that cut police spending. Republicans, who keyed in on back-the-blue messaging in the November election, are likely to oblige. They’ll also be unlikely to budge on issues of police reform, Gutierrez said.
“I think they feel like they had a good election cycle on that message, and they’re going to double down,” he added.
Indeed, it may be difficult to find middle ground on much of anything outside of the need to dig the state out of its current budgetary mess. The Republican-controlled Lege hasn’t enacted significant new taxes since the early 1990s, and handicappers don’t think that record is likely to change anytime soon.
“It’s hard to see what the legislative priorities will be other than to balance the budget,” SMU’s Jillson said.
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