The Texas Legislature is still dominated by Republicans, but Democrats picked up seats in both chambers during the November elections.
That could mean that the so-called wedge issues like the bathroom bill and initiatives aimed at illegal immigration that dominated the agenda two years ago could be relegated to the back burner this time. And if so, that could free up time and energy for lawmakers and statewide elected leaders to a host of smoldering issues that have remained on hold.
Here is a preview of what Texans can expect during the 140 days that lawmakers will be in Austin.
The gun debate and school safety
Over the past 14 months, Texas became the scene of two horrific mass shootings – one that left 26 dead during a Sunday morning worship service at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and another that claimed the lives of 10 at Santa Fe High School near Galveston.
State leaders in gun-friendly Texas have given no sign that efforts to further restrict the ownership of firearms will become law.
But state leaders do see opportunities for enhanced safety at public schools. Among the options lawmakers are expected to consider are the state paying for more trained armed marshals on campuses, enhanced effort to identify mental health issues that might foretell a tendency toward violence, upgrading security at access points in school buildings and more training to deal with an active shooter on campus.
School finance and tax relief
Texas has long struggled to find a way to reduce the property tax burden in local school districts while having the state pick up more of the share for financing public education.
It’s been a tough sell. But both Gov. Greg Abbott and incoming House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have pledged to address it this session. The sticking point, historically, has been how to generate more tax revenues without being seen as raising taxes.
In fact, both Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are proponents of limiting how much local property taxes can be increased each year, which further complicates the school finance conundrum.
Among the likely options as leaders approach the task are dedicating at least a portion of some revenue sources, like the taxes raised on oil and gas production or a slice of the sales tax haul, directly to schools.
But if the schools are the winners under such a scenario, that means some other government functions would be the losers. And that’s what makes solving the school finance puzzle a tricky needle to thread.
The opioid epidemic
One of the issues lawmakers worked on after last session ended was Texas’ role in what has become an epidemic of deaths due to addictive opioids, which are often prescribed by doctors to alleviate pain after surgery and other procedures.
The special panel that examined the matter determined that 3,000 Texans died from the opioid and other drug overdoses in 2017. Among the committee’s recommendations for the upcoming session are enacting a so-called “good Samaritan” law to protect people from prosecution for helping someone who has overdosed, even if the helper was also using drugs.
Other matters that will likely be consider are requiring out-of-state pharmacies to report when they sell controlled substances to patients in Texas and to encourage physicians to use alternatives opioids for pain management.
The state budget
Under the Texas Constitution, the Legislature is required to pass this piece of legislation every two years, and that is the state’s spending plan.
The price tag for the two-year budget passed in 2017 was nearly $217 billion, and if history is a guide, the one that will emerge from this session will be more.
But, lawmakers can only spend the amount of money the comptroller projects will be taken in in taxes, fees, federal grants and other sources between Sept. 1, 2019 and Aug. 31, 2021.
And that figure will be announced by Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday, one day before the session begins. How they spend it will be the product of countless hours of public committee hearings by both the House and the Senate, followed by countless hours of back-room deal making.
Each chamber will craft its own budget, so there will be more hearings and more deal-making before the final product emerges, likely sometime in mid-May.
The key players
Gov. Greg Abbott: Coming off a comfortable re-election where he drew more votes than any other candidate on the ballot, the 61-year-old Republican should be in the position to be the 2019 session’s table-setter.
His big goal is school finance reform and reining in the growth of property taxes. The two issues are intertwined and finding a way to forge a consensus that the House and Senate can agree to will be a big lift.
Without coming and saying it explicitly, Abbott also appears to have little patience for things like the bathroom bill, which targeted members of the transsexual community and dominated the headlines under the Capitol dome two years ago.
In November, Abbott’s party lost 12 House seats, the most since the GOP gained its majority in 2002, and two Senate seats. Asked in an interview last month about whether he’d like to fight that battle again, Abbott replied that his job was “to listen to the voters.” And many of those voters cast ballots for statehouse candidates who ran against the bathroom bill.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: The Republican presiding officer of the Texas Senate also won re-election in November, but he ran 5.5 percentage points behind Abbott.
Heading into the 2017 session, Patrick dashed off several news releases laying out several conservative initiatives, including the bathroom bill, for the Senate to act on. His agenda cleared the Republican-dominated upper chamber, and most of it in some form also cleared the House.
The bathroom bill, opposed by an unlikely alliance of business leaders and liberal activists did not.
With just days to go before the start of the 2019 session, Patrick’s press shop has been uncharacteristically quieter.
But Patrick, 68, will still be a force. Even with a net loss of two Republicans, he’ll still have a solid 19-12 GOP majority in the Senate and he’ll still appoint the Senate committee’s and their chairman. And he’ll still control the flow of legislation.
Once seated, it will be up to him to organize the House, which includes selecting a leadership team and appointing the committees. Unlike in Congress where the majority party is the only one that counts, the Texas Legislature has traditionally awarded at least some of the plum appointments to the minority.
Had not the House lost a dozen GOP seats in the elections, Bonnen might have been under some pressure from Republican hardliners to cut the Democrats out. But he has signaled his desire to retain the bipartisan tradition.
Things to watch for in the early days of the session are which House members get which assignments and how the relationship between Bonnen, Patrick and Abbott gels once legislation gets moving.