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Texas This Week: Austin lawmakers discuss 86th legislative session

Austin Sen. Kirk Watson and Representatives Donna Howard, Celia Israel, James Talarico and Sheryl Cole sat down with Ashley Goudeau to discuss the session.

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas 86th legislative session came to an end on Monday. A lot happened in those 140 days, so members of the Austin-area delegation, Sen. Kirk Watson, Representatives Donna Howard, Celia Israel, James Talarico and Sheryl Cole, sat down with Ashley Goudeau for a roundtable discussion on the session.

Ashley Goudeau: Thank you so much for being with us today, we certainly appreciate it. Lets start by talking about overall thoughts on the session, how this session was compared to last session. Sen. Watson, we're going to start off with you.

Sen. Kirk Watson (D): "Sure. Well it was a much better session than the last session. Last session was dominated by red meat, you know, issues where it created great division and fight. This session, we came in having worked during the interim on the School Finance Commission and having that as a platform. So we actually came in with the idea that we're going to try to do something that we have the political will for and the money for and that was really address school finance and reforms. And so that kind of drove the session overall as an overriding point."

Rep. Donna Howard (D): "Oh well I agree with what the senator said. We came in with money. That's always a game changer. We came in with an election that changed the makeup of the body, especially on the House side. We came in with pent up frustration I think on the part of voters that, 'Hey you guys are not paying attention to the things that are going to make a difference in the day-to-day lives of Texans. And we want to see that happen.' And, so of course we had a new speaker. All of those things and probably more shaped this into a very different session, much better session. As I said before, it was a pretty low bar we had to get above, but we had a good session. I think everybody came out pretty much thinking we had a good session."

Rep. Celia Israel (D): "I was telling everybody before the session started, because we knew the mandate the voters had given us, we knew the balance that had been given us, I said if we do it right, everybody goes home with a trophy. And that trophy is more support for our teachers and our school support staff and our children and pre-K and all of the above. We didn't know we were going to get it, but we knew we were going to aim for it. So in a sense, at the end of the day, we're all I think, not only relieved that the 140 days is over, but we all did go home with a trophy and that was a significant influx of revenue into our public schools system." 

Goudeau: I asked the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick -- I sat down with him for an interview -- and I asked him to describe the session in one word and he said his one word, 'teamwork.' And that that was teamwork between the Big 3.

Israel: "That sounds so much like him."

Goudeau: Teamwork between the senators, teamwork between the members and then teamwork for everyone, everyone working together to pass these reforms. You've made some mumbles, but do you agree or disagree?

Israel: "Well one man's teamwork is another woman's tug of war. [laughs] But I was not in the room when it happened, but I do think from our perspective it was, it was helpful that we had a more moderate House. We had a speaker who wanted to, I think, be that negotiator with the governor and lieutenant governor and not shy away from them but rather get in there with them and scramble with them. And in that sense, Speaker Bonnen, I think, was the right man for the job in the year in which we needed to focus on one big issue."

Watson: "It was clearly not as acrimonious as in the past. And where I will say that the word teamwork plays out is you saw some things you hadn't seen before. For example, Rep. Talarico just mentioned I was on the conference committee for HB3. I think in a different session, that probably would not have happened. This was my first session to be on the education committee. We went into the session knowing this was going to be a big deal in that regard and the fact that he put me on the education committee, then put me on the working group to deal with revenue and then on HB3's conference committee was a sign that he was looking in some instances, for trying to create more teamwork. That didn't happen in every instance I might add ... and I hope and believe that he looks back on that now and says that teamwork and that effort to create bipartisan teamwork played off."

Rep. Sheryl Cole (D): "And I think it's important to look at the teamwork from the perspective of so many new freshman. That even the very concept of what it means to be a freshman from what actually happened changed. Because not only was I on Ways and Means, James was on Public Ed. Several freshman were on Appropriations. The speaker did not take that sort of attitude into it; he just wanted to get the work done. And he wanted the diversity of the new people coming in. He valued that."

Rep. James Talarico (D): "As a freshman, I happen to be the youngest member in the Legislature and Speaker Bonnen was the youngest member when he first got elected. So he kind of, certainly took me under his wing and provided some advice, both political and personal about how to navigate this place when you're that young. But I agree, kind of what Sen. Watson said about Lt. Gov. Patrick, is true with Speaker Bonnen. You know, when he looked at all the members who wanted to be on the public education committee, he asked me to serve on it because of my experience as a teacher in the classroom even though I'm a swing-seat Democrat. And he got some push-back politically for putting a Democrat in a vulnerable seat in such a high-profile committee, but he did it anyway because he wanted practitioners at the table when these conversations were happening. And so I think that's a perfect example of putting people or putting kids before politics, which I think is exactly the message voters sent in the last election."

Goudeau: Everyone at this table voted against Senate Bill 2. Am I correct in that? That's the bill that would reduce the rollback rate, which is how much cities and counties can increase your property taxes without voter approval from 8% to 3.5%. It takes it all the way down to 2.5%. You're all giving me the death look now. Let's talk about why you guys voted against it.

Watson: "Well it's a show vote. It's not going to really reduce property taxes and it, in my view, was set up to be by those in control at the Capitol to blame some body else for their high property taxes when really the cause of their high property taxes was because those in control at the Capitol had refused time and time again to fix the school finance system. So they needed somebody else to blame. The public smartened up on that real quick and realized that's not right and that's part of the reason why we've got HB3. But SB2 is not going to lower people's property taxes and I believe it will do real damage to what happens in cities and counties. And, probably wearing my former mayor hat, I just think those elections where we elect the mayor and council and we elect the county judge and the commissioners court, those mean something. Those elections matter too. And I shouldn't be making decisions for what the El Paso City Council's doing just like the El Paso senators and representatives shouldn't be making decisions about what the Austin City Council and the Commissioners Court in Travis County do. So it's a bad bill and I think it will have bad ramifications."

Talarico: "And I completely agree with the senator that we already have property tax caps in the state and they're called elections. And no one wants the Texas Legislature to be the City Council of Texas. We elect city council members all across our region to do this important work and its not our job as legislators to interfere with that work. And I think in a lot of ways, SB2 was designed to confuse voters and luckily our Central Texas voters are smarter than that and they know the driver of local property taxes is your school district bill, which we addressed with a property tax buy down in HB3. But hurting cities and counties is not the way to solve this problem."

Howard: "Yeah, and you know, I think the sad truth is a lot of us at the Legislature, we're there for five months every two years we have to know about all kinds of things, don't know as much about some of these things as one might wish we did. And I think that it was lost on some of my colleagues for many years, that the state was actually benefiting from the property value increases and using those extra dollars coming in to pay for things that were not public education related. As we were able to get that word out more and more, 'Hey, we're shifting the cost to the local property taxes and, oh, by the way, it's not even paying for public education.'"

Israel: "It was an excuse to step away from the plate."  

Howard: "Yes, exactly. And so to what's been said already, Senate Bill 2 was taking an absolutely nonsensical approach to this, it was not the issue; it's for political purposes, it's for campaign fliers. It's to say, 'We came in and took care of things,' when really, we were the culprit all along. And we are addressing that. But to go back to what we were talking about earlier -- there still has to be sustainable revenue streams to make this go forward or we're going to find ourselves right back in the same situation we were in before."

Cole: "What I hated the most about the discussions is they were never matched with the services taxes provide. And it just left everything confusing."

Israel: "It was the wrong way to do policy."

Cole: "It was the wrong way to do, because if you would have asked me when I was working and there was a daycare, city day center, you know, a mile from my house, the Hancock Center actually, that my kids could walk to and they did, three boys, and if you had said that that center is going to close at, because of property tax cuts, it's going to have to close at five instead of 6:30 but you can pay $100 more on your property taxes, I would have moved three kids downtown to a daycare that would have cost me $400 or $500 more. And that is really going to have to happen. And so I was always encouraging the mayors and county officials, especially the mayors, close the pool in their neighborhood. Close the senior citizen center. Close it, just close it. Make it real. They don't get it. They just think there's this gap, 'My property taxes are high, my property taxes are high.' But the things that government provides, people need."

Goudeau: But some people say this will slow growth and they see that as a good thing.

Watson: "Well, except that it doesn't slow the growth of the city you live in. So in Austin, Texas where we've become a focal point in a worldwide information and knowledge economy, and people are moving here every day and that creates a real needs, that growth doesn't slow. The growth of those needs doesn't slow. So in my view, we ought to rely upon the people we elect to make those decisions about how many police per 1,000 we want, parks, playground, libraries, daycare facilities. We ought to rely on the people we elect to make those decisions because the members of the Legislature are woefully ill-equipped to make those decisions. And those local elections matter. If you think that the property tax growth is going too fast by comparison to the growth of the needs, you have a way to solve that problem and that is vote for somebody else that will do it differently."

The Austin Delegation also talked about transportation, their favorite bills of the session and the future. You can watch the full conversation here: 


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