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East Texas lawmakers ready for Round 2

By Glenn Evans
June 18, 2017 at 4 a.m.


East Texas lawmakers are giving the 85th Legislature that concluded Memorial Day a thumbs up for reforming Child Protective Services and passing a balanced budget but low marks on issues that will bring them back to Austin on July 18 for a 30-day special session.

"I was pleased that, going into the session, the House and the leadership of Speaker (Joe) Straus made CPS reform a top priority," Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said of his third 140-day lawmaking session. "Also, mental health was a top priority. ... The biggest disappointment comes from our inability to get something done on school finance."

Remaking the state's inequitable school finance formula is among some 20 issues on the agenda that Gov. Greg Abbott set for the special session.

So is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's so-called bathroom bill, which stalled as the House and Senate disagreed over a final product.

It was Paddie's amendment, adding an option for schools to provide private facilities for students who feel uncomfortable using bathrooms that match their birth gender, that led the House bill to Senate rejection.

"I thought it was reasonable to try to approach it that way, but at the same time not be overly prescriptive in a way that puts a financial burden on our school districts," Paddie said. "Obviously, the House agreed with me. All my Republican colleagues supported that amendment. Unfortunately, the Senate failed to act on that."

Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, who completed his freshman session, indicated the House did its job with the bathroom issue.

"There was a pretty strong will in the House that we did what we needed to do," Dean said, noting other matters on the governor's call, led by the intertwined property tax reform and school finance fix. "Until you go in and get education finance reform done, where do we go to reform property taxes - how do we? The Senate basically said 'no' to school finance reform."

Dean also criticized a still-pending bill that would force voter approval when school boards or city councils raise property taxes 5 percent or more.

Firstly, he said, taxing entities in his Gregg/Upshur District 7 have not raised property taxes 5 percent in recent memory. Next, the entities of a mind to hike taxes likely would increase rates 4.99 percent to stay under the proposed cap.

"They are going to do it year after year," Dean said. "They are going to use it as a crutch."

Rep. Cole Hefner, with Dean one of 21 first-year lawmakers in the House this session, said his research indicates no local entities have raised taxes more than 5 percent in the past decade.

"I'd like to see more comprehensive property tax reform moving forward," said Hefner, R-Pittsburg.

Hefner, Paddie, Republican Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and GOP Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola met Wednesday with area superintendents at the Region VII Education Service Center to recap the session and look ahead.

"I'm optimistic we'll do something (on school finance)," Hefner said. "House Bill 21, the big public education bill - I voted for it."

The House version of HB 21 reinstated so-called ASATR funding, which stands for Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction and is pronounced, "asuh-tar."

Created in 2006 to ensure property tax cuts the Legislature passed that year did not harm per-student funding levels, ASATR dies Sept. 30, and the Senate did not pass the House education bill with the ASATR renewal intact.

"The House and Senate never got together on working out those differences," Hefner said, adding his support for bringing back the bathroom bill.

He said Patrick's bill targets sexual predators and not transgender people.

"(Bathroom choice) opens the door to sexual predators," he said. "We haven't had a problem with transgender people going to the bathroom in the past."

Reshaping how Texas pays for schools and reforming the property tax scheme are worth heading back to Austin, Dean added.

"If we did anything in that whole 30 days and got tax reform done, man, I'm going to be excited," Dean said. "If we don't, I'm going to be working real hard in the interim (before the 86th session) to get tax reform done."

Hefner was hopeful school finance can be achieved in the special session. He also linked the action to overall tax reform.

"I think it's good to have the conversation," he said.

Clardy noted the ambitious list of issues on the agenda, which includes a probe of a voter fraud avenue even opponents of voter ID agree is susceptible - mail-in balloting.

"We want to make it easy for people in the older population to participate (in elections)," he said. "But if someone is inclined to cheat, it probably is the easiest way to do it."

Yet, Clardy added, the special session could have been avoided "with a little better planning."

"The lieutenant governor seemed to have an appetite for a special session from the first day we started the 85th Legislature. That didn't change, so we get to go back."

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