As is typical for the first day of any session of the Texas Legislature, there was a lot of ceremony in Austin on Tuesday. Dozens of kids and other visitors were at the Capitol, gathered to see their parents and loved ones take the House or Senate oath of office for the first or 15th time. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott spoke to both chambers and, perhaps more important, incoming House Speaker Dennis Bonnen spoke to his new charges. Press conferences offered reporters reasons why this session is such a big deal — as if the ones that came before it were warm-ups for the real thing.
No matter who was at a microphone, everyone at the Capitol building seemed to be in agreement on one thing: Texas must confront its ongoing school finance crisis this session. On most issues the show of unity would've been remarkable, but in the case of school finance it's more likely that it reflects just how big the problem has grown.
In a short speech to incoming House members, Abbott mentioned just two policy priorities: school finance and property-tax reform, a longtime favorite of statehouse Republicans.
"You have the ability — and we will achieve it — that we are going to reform school finance in the state of Texas this session," Abbott said, according to reporters at the Capitol.
The quickest way to boost school funding in the state would be to increase the amount the state contributes to local schools. In 2019, for example, the state will cover about 35 percent of the cost of operating Texas' public schools, with 55.5 percent coming from local property taxes, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune. Any deal on school financing will also have to account for any reductions in property taxes, making Abbott's twin priorities a balancing act.
At a press conference on the Capitol steps, Democratic leaders of the state Senate's Hispanic caucus and the House's Mexican-American Legislative Caucus said that, while reforms are essential, they must also be equitable for those who live in poorer school districts.
"Our diversity is our strength," said Sen. Jose Menendez, chairman of the Senate's Hispanic caucus. "Our state must reflect it and invest in it equitably. It is so much cheaper to invest in education than it is to incarcerate people."
Texas' continued economic success depends on it, said Rafael Anchia, Oak Cliff Representative and chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus.
"If children don't have access to good teachers, to great resources, to the best classrooms available in the state, we as a state will fail," Anchia said.
Bonnen, the incoming speaker, emphasized in his initial address that his priorities were in line with the governor's. Dealing with such complex problems, he said, meant that this year's Legislature couldn't get bogged down by the small stuff.
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"Right now, Texas has a number of problems to resolve, and it's our duty to produce meaningful solutions for all Texans," Bonnen said. "As we all know, a Texas legislative session is way too short to get caught up in things that don't lead to real results. In a state as big and diverse as Texas, there are plenty of ideas about how we should [address] any one of these issues. These ideas often point in different directions. It's our job to reconcile the differences."
One doesn't have to read too deeply between the lines of Bonnen's statement to see it as a rebuke of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who skipped opening day to attend meetings at the White House, according to Sen. Jane Nelson, who welcomed the Senate in his stead. In 2017, Patrick led the charge for the controversial bathroom bill, which would've required individuals using public facilities to use the bathroom intended for the sex listed on their birth certificate, rather than the one that matched their gender identity.
In a statement, Patrick didn't mention any specific policy priorities but congratulated Bonnen on being named speaker.
Said Patrick, "I look forward to working with him and I am confident our collaboration will lead to positive and bold public policy for the people of Texas and the future of our state."