The Texas Legislature wasn’t built for harmony. It was built for debate

by Ross Ramsey, Texas Tribune

As the Texas Legislature digs into the busiest half of the current session, early harmony is giving way to difference and debate. The House and Senate are easing into their traditional roles — as rivals.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (left) and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Gov. Greg Abbott addresses members of the Texas legislature and judiciary at his State of the State address in the House chambers at the Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019.

The state’s leaders might be getting along better this year, but that doesn’t mean they are in agreement.

On big issues, from growth restraints on property taxes to teacher pay to school finance, the synchronized legislating promised at the beginning of the year is starting to wear thin.

That’s normal, even when they’re getting along: The House is the House and the Senate is the Senate and this arrangement was designed for disagreement.

And on Friday, lawmakers hurriedly filed hundreds of bills ahead of the deadline for proposing legislation without special permission. There are 11 weeks left in the session. It’s time to start fighting.

They’ve got a head start on some issues. The Senate unanimously passed an across-the-board pay raise for public school teachers and librarians that’s getting a chilly reception in the House, where Speaker Dennis Bonnen said the Senate’s idea — which doesn’t address the other elements of school finance reform or property tax relief — is something less than complete. “What we have is a plan,” he said of the House.

That’s not a leave-the-room-and-slam-the-door moment, but it’s not two-part harmony, either. And it’s not the only instance where the two sides of the Texas Legislature are reverting to form.

Related legislation that would require voter approval for property tax revenue increases of more than 2.5 percent has been approved by a Senate committee, but not by the full Senate, where support for that number appears to be thinner than needed. Everybody got a clear early signal on how a 2.5 percent trigger will be welcomed in the House a few weeks ago, when House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee, expressed some doubts.

Zerwas said 2.5 percent is too low for his district. Burrows called it a “starting point.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick hedged: “I don’t know what the final number will be.” The Senate bill sponsor, Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said at one point that “2.5 is just a number” — not exactly drawing a line in the sand.

That negotiation isn’t unusual either, but it shows a Legislature willing to wander from the number initially set down by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The disagreements are completely normal. The whole system is set up for debate, so much so that the weird thing this session was the idea — back there at the beginning — that everybody was going to hold hands and take all of the drama out of some of the most contentious issues the Texas Legislature ever tackles.

The differences on schools and on taxes are reflected in differences in the House and Senate budgets, too — and will have to be reconciled before lawmakers go home. There is early talk, much of it from lobbyists who haven’t been fully employed while this Legislature was in its weeks-long startup mode, that it will take a special session after the regular session to iron all of these things out.

The evidence for that argument hasn’t appeared yet. Differences on property taxes don’t seem dire: They just need to find the compromise number. Differences on school finance could — and have, in some past sessions, prove to be too much to settle in the remaining weeks between now and Memorial Day, when the session ends. But a settlement is not impossible, and there is no court order or anything other than political promises to compel lawmakers to work it out this year.

The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker made school finance and property taxes their top priorities back at the beginning of the session. Now that state lawmakers have filed thousands of other bills, the trick will be to keep enough focus on the big stuff while everything else is being argued.

There will be plenty of distractions and other battles, as with any session. Lawmakers filed more than 6,000 bills and not one has been heard yet by both chambers. Most of those bills will die.

That’s how this is supposed to work. The challenge is to get legislation through the obstacle course — a challenge even when most lawmakers want the same result.

And now it’s becoming clear that they don’t want exactly the same result.

Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, where he writes regular columns on politics, government and public policy.

This article original appeared on the Texas Tribune with the tittle Analysis: The Texas Legislature wasn’t built for harmony. It was built for debate.


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