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Better session ahead, legislators say

Thursday, January 17, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Senator Kirk Watson told those gathered at the Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon on Wednesday that he is “more optimistic than I have been in the past by quite a bit” about the possibility of resolving numerous problems related to public school finance during the 2019 legislative session.

“As we go into this session we’re not hearing the yammering about what I consider to be purely wedge issues that just distract and take up time. To the contrary, pretty much everyone seems to be focused on what we need to do with school finance,” Watson said, noting that the Texas House did “a pretty good job” on that issue last session, while the Senate, on the other hand, did not.

His colleagues on the panel, Austin Rep. Celia Israel, a Democrat, and her colleague Republican Rep. John Cyrier, who represents Caldwell, Bastrop, Gonzales, Lee and Karnes counties, agreed that legislators would be focused on resolving school finance and property tax issues.

However, Watson warned, “No one should believe that solving the property tax problem solves school finance.”

Israel said, “The state has got to step up to the plate,” in terms of funding education. At one point, she said the state and local districts were funding schools on a 50-50 basis. But now, the state is paying only 38 percent.

Cyrier said it is past time to tap the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, known as the rainy day fund, which has grown to more than $12 billion and is projected to reach $15 billion within the next biennium, making it the largest such fund in the nation. Noting that the governor did not call for use of the fund after Hurricane Harvey, he asked, “When are we going to start using this?” There has been some talk of using the fund for school security.

Former House member Patrick Rose chairs RECA’s board of directors and led Wednesday’s discussion.

As for property taxes collected by cities and counties, Watson said, “I think you’re going to see an enormous debate on that because frankly, I think the majority of the members believe you elect people like (Travis County Commissioner) Gerald Daugherty,” who was in the audience, “to make those decisions on the local level and you don’t elect us make those local decisions. And I think that will become a big debate.” Governor Greg Abbott has suggested lowering the cap on property tax increases to 2.5 percent.

“I always have believed that the city and county part of that has been an enormous distraction and a diversion from the Legislature taking responsibility for how it screwed up the property tax system by an over-reliance on that for its public education system. And the chickens have come home to roost. People have now seen through that,” Watson concluded.

Rose asked each of the panelists to name their favorite piece of legislation that they were sponsoring. Cyrier said he is sponsoring legislation to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to stop the state from diverting taxes on sporting goods away from their intended purpose, which was to assist the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Cyrier noted that with continued population growth and maintenance needs, the department needs the money more than ever, and, “I feel like this is the session to get it done.” A similar bill won House approval in 2017 but died in the Senate.

Israel said that while she has several very important issues, she would be pushing very hard for the state to adopt online voter registration. She said the matter is not about red states and blue states, but that the majority of states have adopted the practice, including Oklahoma most recently. She said online registration is “a safe way for all of us to save money,” noting that counties have to spend a great deal more to do paper registrations than they would by using the internet.

Watson called Austin State Hospital “one of the two or three worst facilities in the state of Texas.” He went on to describe what he hopes will be a brighter future for the state hospital, being able to offer a continuum of care in mental health, much like a heart care facility offers a continuum of care from intensive care through recovery.

Photo by Daniel Mayer [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons.

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