Texas to Take Up Big-Ticket Items as 87th Legislature Convenes

January 14, 2021 by Reece Nations
The Texas State Capital in Austin, Texas. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

AUSTIN, Texas — The 87th session of the Texas Legislature began Tuesday as lawmakers try to determine how to parse out the state’s estimated $112.5 billion budget for general-purpose spending over the next two years. 

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced his biennial revenue estimate surpassed the amount that was projected over the summer when ripples from the novel coronavirus pandemic first began to shake the state’s economy. Hegar projected a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion over the summer, significantly higher than the $1 billion deficit figure noted in his latest estimates. 

Lawmakers must find a way to account for the 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that were ordered this summer by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former-House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. This could lead to legislators tapping into the state’s “Economic Stabilization Fund,” also known as the “rainy day fund,” established following an economic recession in 1988 and designed to prevent legislators from raising taxes in order to fund state programs. 

During the state’s previous session, the Legislature approved an overhaul to the state’s school finance system that pumped an additional $6.5 billion into public schools and around $5.1 billion for state property tax relief. Despite budgetary constraints, lawmakers appear committed to funding those investments. 

In August, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus unveiled a police reform proposal entitled the “George Floyd Act,” a bill that would address qualified immunity and ban chokeholds statewide among other measures. Further, if enacted, the bill would require law enforcement officers to intervene or render aid if another officer is using excessive force while on the job. 

Democratic state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, has filed a recreational marijuana bill that would decriminalize the drug while boosting state revenue and employment in agriculture, manufacturing, retail and distribution. The Legislature is expected to take up a number of other bills that would expand access to medical marijuana under the state’s already-established “Compassionate Use Program.”

Democratic state Rep. Joe Deshotel filed a bill that would enable casino gambling in certain state coastal areas to provide additional funds for residual windstorm insurance coverage and catastrophic flooding assistance. Currently, only three casinos are permitted to operate in the state by federally recognized American Indian tribes. 

Additionally, alcohol to-go sales in the state may find a permanent place among the hospitality industry as Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock filed a bill that would amend the state’s alcoholic beverage code to permit pickup and delivery for off-premises consumption. Abbott waived certain regulations via executive action in March that permitted alcohol to-go sales and extended the order past its original May 1 deadline. 

The state is also expected to take up a complex redistricting process this session as the legislature plans to redraw congressional and state legislative maps. Texas has added nearly 4 million residents to its population since 2010, according to census data

Texas regularly redraws districts every decade to account for population shifts reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. Senate and House Redistricting Committees will meet this session and gather testimony and input from experts, the public and from the Texas Legislative Council. 

While the state’s population expansion is expected to result in seats being added to the U.S. House of Representatives, the state’s legislature remains fixed at 150 seated representatives in the House and 31 Senators. With much to consider before the session ends on May 31, it remains unclear how these legislative priorities will fully play out. 

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