The 85th Texas Regular Legislative Session was one of the ugliest and least productive in recent memory. Despite the odds, CPPP staff worked tirelessly with lawmakers and partners to get good bills across the finish line and block bad ones.
Lawmakers spent precious time and energy on discriminatory responses to manufactured problems, instead of focusing on the real challenges facing our state. They missed countless opportunities to adopt policies that would have made Texas healthier, better educated and more financially secure. While a few sensible policies managed to make it through, overall the session pitted Texans against their neighbors while failing to invest in a strong future for hard-working people and their families.
One of the most spectacular tragedies of the session was the failure to enact school finance reform. The House worked hard to craft a reasonable plan, but zealots in the Senate poisoned it with school vouchers and woefully inadequate funding. The promise of expanded pre-K led only to a mandate that will force schools to use existing funding to pay for pre-K, resulting in a net loss for districts.
Another casualty of the session was Texas’ long-held reputation for sensible immigration policies. Immigrants and their families became the targets of fear-mongering and bias. Despite hours of testimony against the bill from law enforcement, educators, and faith leaders, the Legislature passed a “show me your papers” law that will force immigrants and mixed-status families into the shadows, threatening public safety and the Texas economy. LGBTQ Texans were the victims of other priorities driven by fear rather than facts, including the so-called bathroom bill.
Touting a “tight budget” mostly created by the Legislature’s own short-sighted tax cuts and revenue diversions last session, the state continue its record of underinvesting in health care, education and other critical services. Lawmakers inexplicably left billions of dollars sitting in the Rainy Day Fund – a foolish policy choice that threatens our future prosperity. And despite the revenue shortfall, they continued to push for more tax cuts, which so far have failed to pass. The harm to Texans from state cuts to critical services is likely to be exacerbated by looming federal threats to health care, food and education programs.
At the same time the Senate was refusing to pay the state’s fair share of public school funding – the real way to control property taxes – it was pushing hard to limit the ability of local governments to raise the revenue they need. That was one of many state efforts to usurp local control from Texas cities – the engines of our economy.
Though the scheme to cut revenue from local governments and the “bathroom bill” failed to pass during the regular session, Gov. Abbott added these and more bad ideas to the special session scheduled to begin July 18.
There were some silver linings, and CPPP’s data and advocacy helped lawmakers get good policies across the finish line. Mental health in Texas got a big boost when both houses passed bills that make coverage more accessible and equal, and bolstered programs that help people living with mental illness get the treatment they need and stay out of jail. Texans who receive surprise medical bills after visits to emergency rooms will now have better protections, and grandparents and other kinship caregivers will receive some additional financial support to help children stay with family.
In addition to the good bills that passed, CPPP helped block or reduce the harm from several terrible bills – including efforts to subsidize private school tuition through vouchers, eliminate the state’s main business tax, restrict the ability of cities and counties to raise revenue, and remove a key source of financial aid for college students.
Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on July 18 to take on a special session agenda driven by bad ideas that should have been buried after an unproductive regular session. Twenty-nine days later, the Legislature adjourned without having accomplished much. A few common-sense bills passed that should have been taken care of during the regular session, such as maintaining the licensing of the Texas Medical Board and extending the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force. A “school non-finance” law that started out strong but got weaker did pass and will pit education against health care by relying on a budget gimmick. Fortunately, most other discriminatory, punitive, and short-sighted proposals failed to pass.
We express our deep gratitude to the many lawmakers, legislative staff, partners and supporters who persisted in the face of daunting odds to fight for hard-working Texans and their families. As lawmakers take a brief break before the special session, CPPP will continue to analyze what passed and what didn’t, explain the implications for Texas, and build momentum for policies that enable Texans of all backgrounds to reach their full potential.
CPPP engaged in a two-front war during the 85th session, defending health and hunger benefits at both the state and federal levels. Under-funding of Medicaid in the budget process received strong attention and was fortunately reduced by two-thirds, and legislators extensively debated their responsibility to more adequately fund Medicaid in 2019. Unfortunately, legislators pitted education against health care during the special session, approving an education bill that is paid for by deferring a hefty Medicaid payment. Relying on a future Legislature to fully fund Medicaid puts full funding for the program at risk. It is yet another symptom of this year’s self-inflicted tight budget and proposals this session to limit state spending, All driven by the Legislature’s history of tax cuts that fail to take into account the cost of basic needs of our state. Texas lawmakers advanced no sweeping gains in coverage for 4.6 million uninsured, while Congress debated bills that would increase the ranks of the uninsured. Still, lawmakers achieved a surprising number of policy advances in mental health and kinship care. Support also came from across the political spectrum for steps to address Texas’ maternal health crisis, consumer protections in commercial health insurance, and for improved access to non-physician providers in Medicaid.
The House worked hard to craft a reasonable plan for school finance reform, but it unraveled when zealots in the Senate added school vouchers and removed most of the funding. Modest increases were made in need-based financial aid and support for community colleges, but the state continued to underinvest in higher education. Fortunately, several damaging bills were blocked that would have cut funding to higher education, eliminated financial aid for Texas students and overridden local payday lending regulations. Fear-mongering tarnished Texas’ long-held reputation for sensible immigration policies, and led to passage of a “show me your papers” law that will force immigrants into the shadows, threatening public safety and the Texas economy.
With education and health care funding stagnant, the best that can be said about these areas of the 2018-19 budget is that even bigger cuts and underfunding were averted. Increases in students, clients and costs will continue to strain public education and health care as both the All Funds and General Revenue spending levels approved by the Legislature remain at or below the 2016-17 level. Lawmakers enacted no major cuts to state revenue, though a phase-out of the franchise tax got much further in the legislative process than fiscal realities should have allowed. More restrictive local property tax caps also failed to make it past both chambers.