The only legislation that can be passed by the Texas Capitol during the first 60 days of a session is a priority item from the governor’s office or a bill that receives a large majority. But that doesn’t mean elected officials aren’t busy.
Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University, said the start of the legislative session is filled with committee assignments and early plans for the spring. From the end of March, the floodgates open, and all bills submitted can be put to a vote.
“Management is discussing the positions of the chairman of the committee. As soon as these committee chairs are appointed over the next few weeks, you will start holding committee hearings and debates on legislation,” he said. “In Texas, we’re trying to effectively squeeze what most legislatures do in a full two-year period into five months. So right now everyone is getting their ducks in a row, everyone is getting the legislation created for the sprint starting in March.”
The Legislature is also still waiting to hear what Governor Greg Abbott’s priorities will be – the governor will share them in a yet-to-be-scheduled State of the Union address in early February.
Jones said he expects the budget surplus to be the main topic of discussion at the statehouse. Not only does the state have billions of dollars of surplus for this fiscal year ending September 1, he said, but there is also an increase in the available budget for the next biennium.
“There is a lot of money on the table and it will dominate the legislative session,” he said. “First, how to spend this surplus, and then what are you going to do with the increase in the budget that you have the opportunity to receive? And how much of that amount are you going to give back to taxpayers in the form of increased tax credits or other tax credits?”
Jones explained that this surplus is different from the Economic Stabilization Fund, often referred to as the “Rainy Day Fund”, which is reserved for when the state experiences an economic downturn. However, he said he expects some of the surplus to be put into the fund.
“There are spending limits in Texas. So the vast majority in the Legislative Assembly agrees that they will not be able to spend all of this,” he said. “But that will be one of the discussions that will take place over the next few months, how much of that money they should spend and how much they should save. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in the Senate probably wants to save a little more; Democrats in, say, the House of Representatives will probably want to spend a little more.”
Jones said he’s curious to see which issues are attracting the most excess funding – some of which he expects to be on the table, including education and border security.
Beyond the budget, Jones is overseeing several bills, including one that would make casino gambling legal in Texas, which is one of the few states that still bans the practice.
“Maybe this is the year Texas will stop gambling in casinos,” he said.