Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” has never been more true than in the case of the Texas Legislature, where legislation filibustered and amended to death is about to have the chance to breathe new life.
On Tuesday, San Antonio lawmakers will return to Austin for a 30-day special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor has placed 20 items on the agenda, and while legislators may file bills on other issues, it is unlikely that those bills will see a vote, State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) said.
The contentious regular session of the 85th Legislature left many issues unresolved, including critical legislation to extend the expiration dates of various state boards that license physicians. Those bills likely will be passed within the early days of the session, leaving time for more contentious agenda items to be brought to the floor, including the so-called “bathroom bill” pushed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and efforts to eliminate local tree ordinances.
Members of Bexar County’s legislative delegation are prepared to pick up the fight where they left it on May 29, when the regular session was gaveled to a close. Menéndez ended the session with a filibuster that killed an annexation bill championed by State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).
The bill would have restricted the ability of cities to annex unincorporated areas. Residents of extraterritorial jurisdiction areas (ETJs) benefit from city and county services, including road maintenance, EMS, police and fire departments, and other services, depending on the area. They do not, however, pay city taxes. Currently, cities serving such areas are able to annex them, enlarging the city’s tax base, and in theory paying for the services those areas receive.
Campbell’s bill, SB 715, would require consent from voters and property owners in areas targeted for annexation. For areas with less than 200 residents, a petition of registered voters must request the annexation. In areas with more than 200 residents, a vote would be required.
“There is no American ideal more important than the right to vote, and yet that is exactly the ideal that was defeated by one senator as he ran out the clock in the 11th hour,” Campbell stated in an email to the Rivard Report. “The will of the people cannot be denied. This issue is not going away. We have the votes, and we will just have to move a little quicker to avoid similar shenanigans.”
State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) filed a similar bill in the House of Representatives. He told the Rivard Report in an email that annexation reform is still one of his priorities.
Menéndez questioned the constitutionality of SB 715, because it would allow property owners not residing in the area – potentially not in the state or even the country – to vote on the annexation or sign the petition. Owners of commercial properties, undeveloped land, or rental units would be able to vote, which raises issues of how the elections could legally be held.
Campbell maintained that the bill is on strong legal footing.
The issue made Abbott’s call sheet for the special session, and Menéndez is preparing for the likelihood that an annexation bill will pass. He has hosted town halls and meetings with the City of San Antonio to ensure that whatever bill makes it to the governor’s desk reflects the priorities of his constituents.
His primary concern is the area around Camp Bullis, which the City and military officials agree must remain undeveloped.
“I will be fighting any bill that does not provide a buffer for military bases,” Menéndez said.
Training maneuvers conducted at Camp Bullis require clear airspace and total darkness, which would be affected by adjacent development. By annexing the land around Camp Bullis, the City would be able to control development in the area. If encroaching development jeopardizes training maneuvers, the military could be forced to relocate activity to a different facility, Menéndez said. Such a move could destabilize Joint Base San Antonio’s nearly $50 billion impact on the Texas economy.
Campbell said there are numerous ways bases can be protected short of annexing the surrounding areas, including dark sky ordinances, conservation easements, and joint airport zoning boards.
“There is little evidence that city annexation helps in this regard,” Campbell said. “In fact, if you look around Camp Bullis, the development is denser, brighter, and taller within the City of San Antonio and quieter and more rural outside the city limits where they want to annex.”
Larson also plans to pick back up a fight he feels goes all the way to the governor’s desk. Abbott vetoed five of Larson’s six water-related bills to make it through both the House and Senate.
“We will also reintroduce water-related legislation that was either vetoed by the governor or killed in the Senate,” Larson said. “Water is too important to play politics with.”
In June, Larson told the San Antonio Express-News that the vetoes were retribution for ethics reform bills Larson introduced that would have prevented Abbott from appointing major campaign donors to State boards and commissions. Larson plans to reintroduce the ethics reform bill in the special session.
Larson plans to file a bill regarding another special session agenda item that has municipalities concerned: property tax relief. During the regular session, the Legislature failed to pass SB 2, which would have restricted the rights of cities and counties to raise property taxes, which include taxes for public schools. Some lawmakers intend to use the property tax issue as an opportunity to reform the State’s system of public school funding, State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) said.
“The only way to get to true property tax relief is through school finance reform,” said Bernal, vice chair of the House Public Education Committee.
Bernal’s largest piece of unfinished business – and a priority shared with House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) – is progress toward public school finance reform.
Right now, public schools are funded through a complex mix of federal, state, and local dollars. The State’s share of that formula has been shrinking in Texas over the past two decades, from 50% in 1993 to around 38% under the new budget.
Bernal said he plans to file several bills proposing various adjustments to school finance that could shift some of the future tax burden away from property owners and back to the State. Right now, he said, the State is acting as both “fire marshal and arsonist” to the public school system, chastising districts for raising taxes while refusing to fully fund the system at the state level. Property tax relief bills don’t come close to the savings taxpayers would see if their school districts didn’t rely so heavily on residents for income, Bernal said. The 2015 tax relief act provided about $8-$10 per month to the average taxpayer.
“It is the epitome of paternalistic big government,” Bernal said. “[Lawmakers] are creating the problem, blaming someone else for it, and offering a symbolic gesture that doesn’t actually solve the problem.”
Like Menéndez, Bernal is realistic about the issue. He knows school finance overhaul is not going to happen this summer. He hopes, however, to start a bipartisan conversation on the issue to gain momentum for the 2019 Legislature.
“School finance reform is the perfect marriage between red and blue, homeowners and students, the greater good and the individual,” Bernal said.
Larson also said he plans to prioritize public school finance reform, though he did not specify what his plan would include. Larson was the only Bexar County representative to vote against a House amendment to prohibit public dollars from being used for “school choice” programs, such as vouchers, education savings accounts, or tax credit scholarships.
Abbott has also prioritized a $1,000 raise for public school teachers across the state, but did not indicate how he plans to fund it. Ideas proposed in current bills filed by State Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) in the House and Meńendez in the Senate suggest either an appropriation from the general fund or from the State’s rainy day fund, which is nearing $12 billion, the largest in the country.
The Rivard Report also contacted State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio). Because she was on her honeymoon, she was not able to respond to interview requests in time to be included in this article.
Other agenda items, including the “bathroom bill” likely will take up much of the floor time in the coming session, making it likely that many issues will go unaddressed. Whether fighting for a bill, against a bill, or just trying again to run out the legislative clock, legislators will spend the next 30 days under the looming threat of subsequent special sessions if Abbott is not satisfied with the Legislature’s progress.