Every two years the Texas Legislature convenes to conduct the business of the state, from healthcare to public education, from transportation to city and county affairs. The House and the Senate spend hours and hours debating the merits of the bills before them. An onlooker from the gallery can witness the organized chaos of the House proceedings, with 150 state representatives, members of the press, clerks, speaker staff and other legislative staff literally and figuratively rubbing elbows with each other on the House floor. Lobbyists and advocates work the halls, meeting with elected officials and staff, hosting lunches and dinners and educating lawmakers on issues big and small.
However, unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has majorly disrupted life at the capitol as we know it. During a time typically spent developing legislative agendas, advocates and elected officials have found themselves instead working to find ways to conduct the State’s business in a world that relies heavily on face-to-face interactions.
Each regular session lasts 140 days with potential for additional 30-day sessions that can be called by the governor on an as needed basis. The legislature is only constitutionally required do to one thing — pass the state budget. However, each session, thousands of bills related to non-budgetary issues are filed, many of which fail, when they “die” in the process before they can be acted upon. Last session we saw over 10,000 bills filed, with approximately 20 percent of them signed into law.
This session, some capitol veterans expect fewer bills to be filed, with even fewer signed into law. There will be fewer opportunities for face-to-face discussion, so we expect that negotiations on bills will be significantly reduced. There will likely be less opportunity for the public to provide in person input as social distancing rules are enforced and many meetings move to a digital format. Popular events like Industry Day at the Capitol will have to change dramatically or be canceled, as many legislator offices will limit the number of visitors they will allow in their offices. These changes will dramatically change the way that advocates and the public interact with their elected officials.
Each session has its own unique set of priorities and next session is no different. Perhaps the most pressing issue Texas will face this session is related to the budget. At the beginning of the year, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the comptroller forecasted a budget surplus. As COVID-19 took hold in Texas, many businesses slowed down or shuttered completely, resulting in reduced revenue from sales tax and oil and gas taxes. As a result of COVID-19, the comptroller has anticipated a $4 billion deficit in the budget. Legislators will have to find a way to pay the state’s bills for the next two years in addition to some outstanding bills from last session.
Another critical issue that the legislature will be looking at is redistricting. Every 10 years, after the most recent census data becomes available, the legislature redraws the boundaries for the House and Senate districts. This process is highly politicized, with each party vying for more favorable boundaries for their members. Due to some delays with the census, there are still some questions about how and when the redistricting process will take place, but it will certainly be top of mind for many legislators.
Other issues like public education and police reform are likely to get attention in session as well as COVID-19 relief to help stabilize the economy.
For our industry, the focus will be primarily defensive, as we will work to maintain the gains that we made last session. We will also be looking at legislation that will promote affordability and help remove regulatory barriers that make building difficult during the pandemic. After many cities moved their operations to digital formats, our members encountered a variety of challenges, some of which require legislative fixes.
Although no one knows what will happen next session, one thing that we know for sure is that it will be one of the most unique and challenging sessions Texas has ever faced. Rest assured that the advocacy team at the HBA and TAB will work hard to make sure that our industry’s voice is heard in the 87th Legislative Session.
To ensure this is the case, the HBA has its own political action committee, HomePAC, whose purpose is to raise money as well as contribute to issue and candidate campaigns supportive of the housing industry in the Greater Austin area. HomePAC’s Board is comprised of an outstanding group of industry leaders selected to make decisions on how and when to focus these political resources. Contributions to the HomePAC may be made as a corporation or an individual. Visit hbaaustin.com/advocacy/ for more details.
This month’s column has been submitted of HBA’s David Glenn, senior director of Government Affairs