We are moving closer to session, and the pace was fast and furious this week with fundraisers and even a couple of committee hearings. Members are posturing for the session, and here is what is happening:
Patrick Announces Legislative Priorities
In presiding over the 31-member Senate, the Lt. Governor has total control over all legislation filed in the Senate. Last week, Patrick held a news conference to announce his priorities for the upcoming session. Property tax relief is front and center for Patrick. He wants to use part of the state’s $27 billion surplus to allow homeowners to increase their homestead exemption from $40,000 to $60,000, which would cost the state about $2 billion. Other priorities for Patrick include a continued push for funding for Operation Lone Star, the Governor’s border security initiative; tenure reform at colleges and universities; election reform that includes the timely counting and release of election results; public education reform including increased teacher pay and increased security at the state’s public schools; and continued power grid reform, saying more needs to be done to fix the grid after the 2021 winter storm that left millions without power for days on end.
Power Grid Reform
After the deadly winter storm of 2021, the legislature directed the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to redesign the state’s electricity market to ensure more reliability. Legislative leaders from both the House and Senate have now asked the PUC to hold off on their reforms until after the legislative session when lawmakers will certainly pass more laws giving better direction to the agency.
The reforms planned for now would rely on a very basic supply and demand model that rewards companies that can generate the cheapest power and provides financial rewards to power companies that can quickly get the power on the grid in times of stress, such as extreme weather events. The one issue that lawmakers now have is that this plan does not “guarantee” new power generation in the face of ever-increasing demand on the grid. Lawmakers want to focus on not only the need to produce power quickly in times of need, but also build more power generating facilities, including more natural gas plants.
There are multiple committees that will have recommendations for the legislature when it convenes next month. The members of the PUC have agreed that they wait on guidance from the legislature and will now wait on any new market designs until further guidance is given from the legislature.
Uvalde Victims Receive Compensation
The “Uvalde Together We Rise” fund was established by a national group based near DC that distributes funds to families of mass shooting victims. The Compassion Fund announced this week that they were distributing $22 million to 448 people affected by the Uvalde school shooting, including the parents and other family members of the 19 children and 2 adults killed in the incident. Members of the Uvalde community served on a committee to determine the appropriate amounts distributed to each recipient. The exact figures were not available, but the Houston Chronicle reported earlier this week the Uvalde Mayor believes each family received compensation in the $700,000 to $900,000 range.
Secretary of State Resigns
The state’s top election official has resigned. John Scott, who has served as Texas Secretary of State for about 13 months, announced this week he would leave that post at the end of the year. The announcement comes on the eve of the legislative session, where Scott would have faced Senate confirmation to consider his appointment on a permanent basis. Scott now becomes the third straight SOS appointed by Abbott to never go through the confirmation process. Immediately upon Scott’s announcement, Abbott announced he would appoint Senator Jane Nelson to the position, effective January 1st. Nelson, currently serving in her 30th year in the Texas Senate from Denton County, did not seek reelection to another term to begin next year. She is the outgoing chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and should be ensured of a smooth and easy confirmation process this session.
Gov. Abbott has banned the use of TikTok on all state devices over concerns that sensitive information could fall into the hands of the Chinese. In announcing the ban, Abbott said he would like to see lawmakers pass a bill to make the ban permanent and applied to devices used by local governments as well. Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray issued a warning about TikTok saying there are concerns that the Chinese government has the ability to access the application to gain information for the purpose of espionage. TikTok is owned by BryteDance, a Chinese based technology company that paid $800 million for the app in 2020. TikTok has an estimated 85 million users in the US.
House Democrats Choose New Chairman
San Antonio Democrat Trey Martinez has been chosen to lead the Texas House Democratic Caucus during next year’s legislative session. Martinez Fischer won the vote in the private meeting of the caucus yesterday, replacing Rep. Chris Turner of Arlington who decided to step down after two terms leading the caucus. Martinez Fischer was just reelected to his 11th term in the Texas House, and will lead a caucus trying to reset after another election where all statewide Democrats were defeated and their already minority partisan margin was extended.
In a closed-door meeting last weekend, the Texas House Republican Caucus overwhelmingly endorsed incumbent Speaker Dade Phelan for another term when the House gavels in next month. Phelan, who will be seeking his second term leading the lower chamber, was challenged by Rep. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington. Phelan won the tally, which was conducted by private ballot, 78-6. Tinderholt had run on a platform of requiring only Republicans hold committee chairmanships, which would overturn a long-standing House tradition of allowing the minority party to hold some committee chairmanships in an effort to encourage bipartisanship. The caucus vote is non-binding, but is a certain indication of Phelan’s strength and support needed to lead the chamber next session. The official vote for Speaker will be held when the session convenes on January 10th
Houston Police and EMS responded to a call at the home of US Senator Ted Cruz on Tuesday evening. ABC affiliate KTRK confirmed the call was in response to reports of a 14-year-old girl with self-inflicted stab wounds at the residence. Cruz has two daughters. A spokesman for the police department would not confirm whether or not a family member was involved. Representatives of the Senator’s office simply said the police activity involved a family matter and that there were no serious injuries.
The Mexican American Legislative Caucus elected its new chair this week. Rep. Victoria Neave of Garland will take over for Rep. Rafael Anchia, who chose to step down earlier this year. Neave is in her 4th term and currently chairs the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.
Fundraising for members is finally coming to an end. Members are forbidden from accepting contributions 30 prior to and during the session, so the period immediately following the election until the moratorium begins always brings numerous events for members to replenish their campaign accounts. By my last count, at least 135 of the 181 members had fundraising events since the election. Tomorrow is the statutorily imposed deadline to accept contributions.
After the flurry of bill filings on the first day of prefiling, the pace has slowed substantially. Nearly 1,000 were filed on the first day, and now the filing rate is about 25 bills a day. This pace will likely remain slow until after the first of the year.
The session begins on Tuesday, January 10th and lasts for 140 days.