Texas legislators convened for the state’s 87th Legislature on January 12. Unlike most states, Texas lawmakers meet biennially. Once they adjourn at the end of May, they will not come back for a regular session until 2023. Only four states hold their legislative sessions every other year, Texas included, which pales compared to the 31 states that held biennial sessions in the 1960s.
Lawmakers will have a lot on their plates in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout. Will lawmakers be more active than usual? What issues may come up this session? In the 86th Legislature, lawmakers enacted 1,429 bills and adopted ten joint resolutions after considering over 7,500 measures.
The new Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan acknowledged that lawmakers face a challenging agenda this year and emphasized public education and business regulations. The House Research Organization outlined some topics that lawmakers may consider before the 2021 session began.
Appropriations & Spending
State agencies will submit FY 2022-23 budget spending requests to lawmakers. Lawmakers could evaluate proposals to increase revenue or use the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund for the FY 2022-23 budget. The state comptroller previously estimated that Texas would end FY 2021 with a $4.6 billion deficit and noted that spending in FY 2020-21 would decrease $11.6 billion, or 9.5%.
Last May, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House requested that state agencies propose measures to save costs and identify ways to reduce their general revenue and general revenue-related spending by 5%.
Taxes & Revenue
The pandemic has caused revenues to fall in many states, Texas included. As a result, the state will have to offset revenue declines. Such offsets may include eliminating certain tax exemptions, increasing tax rates, or expanding the sales tax to include additional services.
Business & Economic Development
Texas lawmakers could consider legislation to continue or amend some local economic development programs that provide tax or revenue incentives for private businesses, such as allowing cities and counties to offer loans and grants to commercial and retail projects to promote economic development and stimulate business activity. Lawmakers could also legislate to prohibit lawsuits by COVID-19 victims against Texas businesses that exposed them to the pandemic. Legislators may also consider increases to the state’s minimum wage to improve the state economy.
Criminal Justice & Public Safety
Lawmakers could also consider a myriad of criminal justice and public safety bills. Bills concerning policing and the use of force, prohibiting localities from reducing their public safety budgets, revising the current curriculum used to train police officers, reducing the number of jailable offenses, and prohibiting arrests for fine-only misdemeanors, may all be considered.
Lawmakers may consider other issues that include civil asset forfeiture, juvenile justice, bail, pre-trial detention, drug offenses, and the castle doctrine.
Health & Human Services
COVID-19 has caused numerous changes to Texas health & human services. In March 2020, the Texas Department of Insurance adopted an emergency rule temporarily requiring health professionals’ reimbursement rates for telemedicine-based services to be at least the same for those in-person services and that health plans offer telemedicine coverage on the same basis as in-person visits. Lawmakers could look to codify this action and focus on expanding broadband access to rural and underserved areas.
Lawmakers could codify other 2020 state actions to combat the pandemic, such as making permanent Governor Abbott’s waivers, which temporarily allowed out-of-state practitioners to provide care in Texas, allowed certain qualified health care trainees to practice before passing their licensing exams, and permitted oral prescriptive agreements between physicians and physician’s assistants.
Lawmakers could also expand provider eligibility to allow pharmacists to enroll and participate in the Texas Vaccines for Children Program and could look to increase funding levels and recruit more providers for immunization programs.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed Texas public education. Lawmakers could legislate regarding education funding, education finance, online learning, testing, and accountability. The Legislature may consider COVID-19’s impacts on school funding increases and property tax compression as enacted in 2019 via HB 3. That could lead to conversations about the teacher incentive pay program and formula transition grants for school districts that would have lost revenue from the state under the law’s new formulas.
With the pandemic shifting instruction online, lawmakers could look at different ways to ensure that students can access the devices, internet connectivity, and internet speed needed for online education. The Legislature could also amend standardized testing requirements. Other issues that may come up include expanding publicly funded charter schools and providing taxpayer dollars to private schools.
Higher education issues may also be considered this session, including financial aid, budget cuts to higher education institutions, and proposals to retrain adult workers. Texas lawmakers may slash appropriations for higher education institutions by 5% due to projected revenue shortfalls in FY 2022-23. Lawmakers could discuss whether need-based financial aid would be part of that 5% budget cut.
Energy, Environment, & Natural Resources
Lawmakers could continue conversations from 2019 regarding recycling and reusing produced water for irrigation, industrial and city use, and supplementing environmental flows. Proposals related to water could include tax credits, deduction, or discounts for operators that recycle, treat, or reuse produced water.
Texas lawmakers could also consider changes to how aggregate production and processing operations are regulated, including permitting and reclamation requirements for aggregate production operations and more air quality permit requirements. Further, the Legislature could discuss the development of new energy supply technology, including distributed energy resources or small-scale units of local generation connected to the grid at the distribution level, as well as similar proposals to last session’s SB 1941, which would provide the Public Utility Commission with legislative guidance on both ownership and deployment of utility-scale battery storage devices in the state’s electric market.
COVID-19 has also impacted transportation, where revenue sources such as the motor fuel tax have been reduced. Lawmakers could consider allowing more public-private partnerships and other revenue sources, such as tolled lanes. Additional registration fees for electric vehicles could also be considered.
Redistricting will take place this year in a once-a-decade process. This year, lawmakers will draw new maps for state representatives and state senators. The state’s delegation in the U.S. House and State Board of Education maps must be drawn to reflect population changes in last year’s Census.
Lawmakers in numerous states are looking to limit the scope of the state executive’s powers in a state of emergency, and Texas is no different. Lawmakers may look at legislation addressing the scope of emergency authority at both the executive and local levels, the duration of and process for extending disaster declarations, and the Legislature’s role when issuing orders, extending such declarations, or spending or transferring funds. Legislators may also consider modifying voting procedures during a disaster and studying model legislation from other states with contingency plans for such instances.
Numerous regulatory issues may arise this session. Lawmakers may discuss proposals to eliminate restrictions on restaurants providing takeout and alcohol delivery (Governor Abbott temporarily lifted such restrictions), eminent domain, payday lending, and gun regulation. Specifically related to firearms, legislators could discuss allowing people to carry handguns without a state license, creating a criminal offense for reckless discharge of a firearm, expanding background check requirements for guns purchased at gun shows or from private sellers, and instituting “red flag” laws or extreme risk protective orders.
Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence
Last session, lawmakers created the Judicial Selection Commission to study alternatives to judges’ partisan elections. Lawmakers may consider proposals from the Commission’s findings. Such alternatives may include removing partisan affiliation with judges or creating a lifetime or term appointment system.