AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – With the clock ticking down to the end of the legislative session on Memorial Day, Texas lawmakers still have to hash out bills on two of their biggest priorities: property tax reform and school finance reform.
House and Senate negotiators are meeting in an effort to compromise on their differences.
During an interview with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton Thursday afternoon in his office at the State Capitol, CBS 11 asked him if there’s any scenario for a special session.
“Well, there’s always that possibility,” Speaker Bonnen said. “My personal opinion is there’s no excuse for the Texas Legislature to not finish its business in regular session. Everything is set up in conference on HB 3 (school finance reform), in conference on SB 2 (property tax reform) and those are going well and they’re productive. The reality of it is there is no good reason for us not to get our work done in the regular session.”
Bonnen said there are small differences on the property tax reform bill.
The House and Senate agree that cities and counties would call for an election if property tax revenues rise more than 3.5% from the year before.
But there are disagreements over the rollback rate for school districts along with community college and hospital districts.
Regarding school finance reform, the House and Senate are on different tracks when it comes to teacher salary increases.
The bill passed in the Senate gives the state’s public school teachers and librarians an across the board $5,000 raise, while the House version gives school districts nearly $1,400 for raises for all employees plus additional incentive pay.
Bonnen said he believes the Lt. Governor will be flexible.
“I think he’ll see the ability to dynamically pay teachers and not use $4 billion to simply give every teacher the vanilla $5,000 whether you’re working harder or better or in a more difficult environment than anyone else you get the same amount whether you started yesterday for your first day of teaching and whether you’ve been doing it for ten years. I think the Lt. Governor is going to understand that we need to show a differential. Education is a profession and there is no profession where you pay everyone exactly the same amount regardless of how long they’ve done it, how well they’ve done it, and where they’re willing to do it.”
The Speaker points out both the House and Senate each spend $2.7 billion on property tax reductions funded by the state and $3.3 billion on education reforms.
This week, Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar announced the state will have an additional $518 million in revenues at the end of the 2018-19 biennium August 31.
Bonnen said there are two good options: save the money or further drive down property taxes. “Just because the comptroller found $500 million doesn’t mean we have to run out and figure out how to spend it, unless we’re going to use that money to lower our Texans’ property taxes.”
Lawmakers in the House and Senate also have differences in their efforts to shore up the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), which is responsible for the retirement benefits of the state’s 1.6 million current and retired teachers.
The bill passed in the Senate requires the state, school districts, and current teachers to all contribute more to the system.
In addition, each retired teacher would receive a state-funded supplemental payment of $500.
Under the Senate version, the state would pay an extra $542 million.
In the bill passed by the House, each retiree would receive a $2,400 state-funded supplemental payment, while only the state would contribute more to the TRS.
The House bill would cost the state an extra $1.3 billion.
Both versions would enable the TRS to drastically shorten the timeframe to pay off its unfunded liabilities, from 87 years to 30 years.
Bonnen explained why he believes the House version makes more sense. “When the state asked the school districts locally to put in a contribution on that, we want to reduce property taxes. Well, the reality of it is we’re asking that local school district to spend more local tax money to make that payment. So in my opinion, we should go ahead and do what we did in the House, and cover that for our teachers, and our retired teachers, and our school districts because the truth of it is it’s all coming from the same pot of money – the back pocket of Texas taxpayers.”
During our interview, the Senate passed SB 1978, which supporters called the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill.”
But when asked if there is enough time for the House to pass the Senate bill, the Speaker doubted it. “I fear there isn’t. We’re sitting here Thursday afternoon with a hard deadline of Tuesday for us to pass any Senate bills. So the reality is, if they were to pass that bill today (Thursday), the House would receive the bill tomorrow. Being Friday, it would then have to go through a House committee, then would have to go to the House Calendars committee and then the Calendars committee would have to set that bill with having no opposition to it, before Tuesday, which is almost an impossibility.”
A similar measure died in the House last week after a procedural move, but Bonnen supports its revival in the House.
“Yes, I do support it because I think it’s important we have the freedom of expression and the freedom of belief for anybody and everybody whatever their belief is. So that’s all the bill is doing, making sure that no one in Texas is mistreated or pays a penalty for a belief they hold close and dear.”
In a statement after the Senate’s vote Thursday, Equality Texas, the largest statewide organization advocating full equality for the LGBTQ community said, “Senate Bill 1978 has one aim only: to undermine LGBTQ equality and promote anti-LGBTQ messages. In any form, this bill advances messages that hurt the LGBTQ community.”
“It’s the opposite of that. It’s ensuring there is not discrimination,” he said.
The San Antonio City Council voted against a Chick-fil-A at the airport in March after a report showed the restaurant chain donated nearly $2 million to religious organizations that LGBTQ groups believed were discriminatory.
A Chick-fil-A has previously denied it discriminates against anyone and welcomes all customers.
In addition to Senate bill 1978, Bonnen said other measures passed by the Senate at this point of the session may also face major hurdles passing in the House. “The reality of it is if those bills were of such importance to either chamber, they should have already been out of those chambers.”
WATCH FULL ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEW WITH SPEAKER BONNEN