On one level, any legislative session that does not require an immediate special session must be considered a success.
More broadly this was a consequential legislative session, with several of the state’s major issues addressed.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick each ran for office with very specific goals.
Of the five “emergency items” that Gov. Abbott identified during his February State of the State address, four of them passed, leaving only ethics reform (partially) undone.
Patrick specifically campaigned on increasing border security and cutting property taxes, and he got both of those. Border security funding is doubling, and Texas property owners will have a $10,000 increase in their homestead exemption.
Gov. Abbott got his high-priority items through, which is an indication that he was working much more aggressively behind the scenes than some said. He was actively meeting with legislators and kept the House and Senate leadership together when they had very different legislative visions. Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, deserves credit for ushering through Abbott’s top items.
Prognostications that Lt. Gov. Patrick would be a disaster, running the Senate like a tyrant, were absurd and unproven. The Senate ran smoothly, even though it had the largest freshman class in recent memory. Lt. Gov. Patrick’s early promise to not seek the limelight or take credit was kept. Removing the two-thirds rule enabled the Senate to pass more legislation earlier than ever before, and it significantly reduced the need for a dreaded special session.
Conservatives have several important accomplishments from the session:
• The two-year budget was conservative, with state spending below the combined increase in population and inflation. There was no need to bust the spending cap or tap the $10 billion Rainy Day Fund.
•Open carry and campus carry passed, advancing Second Amendment rights.
•Oil and gas operations will remain governed by the state, not local municipalities, effectively nullifying anti-fracking ordinances.
•A Pastor Protection bill to ensure faith leaders do not have to perform gay weddings against their religious beliefs passed.
•Additional restrictions to state laws governing abortions without parental consent were passed.
•The prosecutorial authority for alleged misconduct by elected officials has been transferred to an elected official’s home county, removing it from Travis County.
The biggest fight was over taxes. In the end, the Senate’s homestead exemption increase won the day, with the House bowing to the political reality that millions of Texans are irate about outrageous property tax increases in urban and suburban areas. A better approach would have been to link homestead exemptions to increasing property appraisals, but that fell short in the Senate. Both sides agreed to a broad 25 percent cut to the state’s business tax, bringing the total tax cut to $3.8 billion.
Even with these successes, there were several important items that did not pass both houses, including school choice; strengthening the spending cap; free market legislation affecting Tesla, Walmart and Uber; ending in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and sanctuary cities; protection of state sovereignty over marriage; and legislation preventing abortion coverage through the federal exchange.
Conservative activists always want to win every fight, and these failures will be big issues in primaries for legislative seats next year. The Senate blames the House and the House blames the Senate on these bills. Each issue had its own political dynamic.
The House attempted to increase public education funding by $3 billion, but the Senate refused, instead wishing to wait for the state Supreme Court ruling later this year or early next year. There will likely be a special session next year (perhaps after the May primary runoffs) on school funding. Gov. Abbott could choose to add ethics to that special session call.
Longtime Texas conservative activist Peggy Venable of Americans for Prosperity recently called it a “good session for Texans and a good session for conservatives,” but cited school choice and property tax reforms as important work left undone.
Perhaps the most telling statement was made by former state representative and current Congressman Joaquin Castro, DTexas: “Today marks the end of perhaps the worst legislative session in history.”
Texas Republicans should take that as a compliment.
Mackowiak is syndicated columnist, an Austin-based Republican consultant and former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.