EDINBURG — Property taxes and funding for education were the focus of the state’s 86th legislative session and fittingly dominated the panel discussion Monday during an event with three local state legislators.
The panel, hosted by the Texas Tribune and held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance, served as a post-mortem of the legislative session, which concluded on May 27.
The event brought together Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, and state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, to reflect on how the legislators worked together this year and what they hope to work on in the future.
For Hinojosa, it was clear that the legislators, whether Republican or Democrat, were able to work together because they focused on “bread and butter” issues such as education, infrastructure and health care.
The reason for that, Hinojosa said, was because voters sent a strong message in the election that followed the 2017 legislative session, when the chambers took up politically divisive social issues.
“The voters spoke very loud with their vote,” Hinojosa said. “And pretty much pushed the legislature and leadership to focus on issues that are important to our families.”
Guerra said a big factor was money.
“When there’s money in the state, the legislature gets along much better with each (other),” Guerra said, “and we’re able to do some things that Texas really wanted.”
The three legislators also agreed that House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was important in that regard.
“He has a lot of institutional knowledge and I think he understands that we only have a short amount of time to get what we need to get accomplished,” Longoria said of Bonnen. “And I think the best litmus test for any session is ‘Did we leave the state in a better position than when we started?'”
The answer to that question is up for debate, but this year lawmakers attempted to address that by investing more money in education and reforming property tax laws.
With the passage of House Bill 3, the state will divert $6.5 billion to public education and teacher pay. The bill also includes $5.1 billion in tax cuts for school districts.
They also passed Senate Bill 2, a property tax reform bill which limits the ability of taxing entities such as cities or counties from drastically raising taxes without voter approval.
The passed bill would require those entities to hold an election if they want to levy 3.5% more property taxes than the previous year.
Longoria said there was pushback from local officials who argued the restrictions would limit their ability to provide services. However, he said those local officials did not seem willing to address the issues with their constituents.
“I think ultimately it’s a good step,” Longoria said. “If for some reason or not, it’s not the right direction that we’re going to be heading (into), we can always go back and fix it.”
But a question that remained for the lawmakers is where money will come from in the future, specifically to continue the investments into public education.
The three agreed the state needed to find new sources of revenue and Guerra pointed out that the state’s rainy-day fund comes from oil and gas revenue a volatile industry.
When Longoria was asked if he would be in favor of raising sales taxes as a source of revenue, he said he wasn’t, but stressed the need for a new, consistent revenue stream.
“The state’s growing, we need to make more expenditures and we need to figure out where we’re going to derive revenue from,” he said. “We can’t kid ourselves and think that everything’s going to be OK going in two years because if there’s an economic downturn, we’re going to have to address these issues.”
However, Hinojosa, who was part of a revenue working group, said that raising sales taxes could not be taken off the table.
He noted that what was under consideration was a proposal for a quarter-cent sales tax increase along with a .25 percent increase in severance tax, an increase to cigarette taxes and possibly new taxes.
“So we have the resources to deal with it,” he said. “We just ran out of time.”