Legislative: end of session round-up

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September 27, 2017
Texas legislators have finally returned to their districts after considering nearly 12,000 bills during the regular and special legislative sessions. Governor Greg Abbott signed more than one thousand bills passed by the 85th Legislature. Below are how some of the most important bills these sessions address the Richardson Chamber’s legislative agenda.
Economic development
Chamber position: maintain funding for the Texas Enterprise Fund at a level that enables Texas to stay competitive with other states
The Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) provides governors with a “deal-closing” incentive to offer businesses that are considering moving their operations to Texas. Economic incentive packages make Texas more competitive and attract new and expanding businesses. The original version of the budget did not support TEF, but Governor Abbott said he would not sign a budget without funding. The final budget dedicates $86 million to TEF during the next biennium, a decrease of $22 million from 2016-17.
Chamber position: support diversity in the workforce and avoid negative impacts on economic growth, capital investment and tourism in Texas by opposing laws that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) Texans.
One of the regular and special sessions’ most loudly opposed bill, the Bathroom Bill, was never referred to a House committee by Speaker Joe Straus after being passed by the Senate. SB 3 would have required occupants of public buildings to use only bathrooms and changing rooms that matched the gender on their birth certificate. While limited to public facilities and therefore more restrictive than the North Carolina bill, SB 3 was strongly opposed as harmful to Texans and the Texas business community. Tech Titans, Dallas CEOs, Texas investment groups and technology companies including Apple and Google testified against the Lieutenant Governor’s priority legislation.
Chamber position: oppose property tax policies that place additional burdens on businesses, including appraisal rates or revenue cap structures that treat industrial and residential properties differently. The burden of property tax should be equitably distributed among all taxpayers.
The House and Senate took different approaches to reducing the property tax burden in Texas. Representatives argued that reforming school finance laws would be most effective, as local school districts have the greatest influence on property tax rates and the state’s share of public education funding has been declining for years. Senators argued that Texans do not have enough of a voice in deciding property tax rates, and that the process lacks transparency. In the end, property tax reform failed to pass during either session.
Workforce development
Chamber position: support legislative implementation of the 60x30 plan
Several bills addressed education and the 60x30 plan for Texas, the aim for 60 percent of adult Texans to have a post-secondary degree by 2030. Senate Bill 1782 was signed in June and became effective immediately. The bill eliminated certain dropped-course and formula funding restrictions on adults returning to complete their degree after a two-year gap.
Chamber position: continue funding the Skills Development Fund
The Skills Development Fund provides local customized training opportunities for Texas businesses to increase skill levels and wages in their Texas workforce. The budget allocated $571.8 million to the fund, with much of that in grants provided to community colleges to develop customized training programs specific to business needs. These grants will allow stronger partnerships between businesses and local colleges to create a stronger Texas workforce. Additional bills passed will support the Recruit Texas Program, partnerships between businesses and community colleges to train highly skilled hires, provide tuition waivers to students in such courses, and allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in nursing, applied science and applied technology.
Chamber position: increase K-12 funding for more computer science and math teachers and courses to support the STEM endorsement.
Higher education
State colleges and universities received $7.2 billion in general revenue funds, a decrease of $2.9 million, as well as $1.5 billion in dedicated funds, an increase of about $100 million primarily from tuition. The budget also boosted formula funding for community colleges with an additional $28.8 million.
Chamber position: increase funding for the Texas Research Incentive Program and the address the backlog of unmatched funds
The Texas Research Incentive Program (TRIP) matches private donations to public colleges and universities for research funding. Since its creation in 2009, the program has accrued a significant backlog of unmatched funds totaling $141 million. The final budget allocated only $35 million to the fund, with no answer to how the growing backlog will be paid.
Chamber position: continue funding the Governor’s University Research Initiative with broader criteria for qualifying academics
The Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) matches incentives packages offered by colleges and universities to attract Nobel Prize laureates and other distinguished researchers. While GURI offers an important way for schools to attract accomplished researchers, the law’s criteria for a “distinguished researcher” restrict schools to academics who have already published their best work. Universities should pursue emerging scientists and engineers as well. The qualifications for eligible scientists remain unchanged, but the budget included $15.6 million in additional funds to continue GURI.
Public education
Chamber position: increase formula funding and weights to accurately reflect the cost of public education to meet higher standards
Public school finance was a major priority during both sessions, considering the Texas Supreme Court ruling that urged lawmakers to implement “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.” Because of consistent decreases in state funding to public schools, local property taxes have risen quickly across Texas to pay for public education.
Legislators increased net state funding to schools by $273.6 million during the regular session, based on a property tax increase of $1.4 billion that would cover for the $1.1 billion decrease in state funding. Both chambers agreed on school finance legislation before the end of the special session, but the Senate removed several provisions such that the bill is unlikely to have a significant impact on property taxes. The final version provided a modest increase in funding to small, rural schools and students with autism or dyslexia, $120 million for new facilities, and $212 million to a healthcare program for retired teachers.
Lawmakers also established a statewide commission to recommend impactful public-school funding improvements during the 2018 interim. A-F ratings of public schools also received a major overhaul.
Chamber position: provide adequate funding for STEM education programs such as T-STEM academies and U-TEACH, and add funding for the proliferation of P-TECH academies.
Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) programs funding was approved to guide high school students directly into fields that need more qualified applicants, such as science, technology, engineering and technology (STEM) industries.
Chamber position: provide funding for high-quality, full-day prekindergarten
The budget diverted $1.58 billion from the Foundation School Program for half-day pre-K programs. School districts must use at least 15 percent of this funding, $236 million, to implement high-quality pre-K programs. Texas pre-K programs enroll at-risk three- and four-year-old children who struggle with English or come from an economically disadvantaged background.
Local control
Chamber position: support local control, where local elected officials are tasked with raising funds and providing services to respond to the individual needs of the Richardson community.
The Texas Annexation Right to Vote Act will subject cities in large counties to new annexation requirements, including the residents’ vote of approval. The new requirements will give residents of those areas more voice in the annexation process, but may limit cities’ expansion. The bill will take effect on Dec. 1. Several of the governor’s remaining goals to restrict local control failed to advance, including legislation that would have set caps on increases in local spending and banned texting-while-driving regulations.
Other major legislation
Sanctuary cities
The sanctuary city law was halted by a federal district judge at two days before its effective date on Sept. 1. The polarizing bill is one of the strictest in the country. SB 4 would allow peace officers to question detainees about their immigration status, establish criminal charges for police chiefs who refuse to comply with deportation officers, and create jail time or fines exceeding $25,000 for those who fail to cooperate. Federal district court blocked part of the bill that prohibits “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws.”
Wireless communication
A bill that will allow wireless network companies to place network nodes, or equipment at a fixed location that enables wireless communication, in a public right-of-way (ROW) became effective on Sept. 1. The new law will allow Texas cities to adapt to new technological developments, and removes the former out-of-date restrictions on wireless network nodes.
See the Texas Legislature Online’s website for a complete list of laws from the regular and special session bills that will go into effect, www.capitol.state.tx.us.
Kedzie Arrington, Intern
(972) 792-2807