In the Texas House, property tax legislation is being handled with a different speed — and tone

By: Shannon Najmabadi

City mayors extended an olive branch. Witnesses spoke uninterrupted. A House Democrat said he appreciated the “frame and tone” set by a GOP chair.

When the Legislature’s priority property tax reform bill was rolled out by a House committee Wednesday, it was met with a tenor and pace that differed markedly from the more contentious proceedings in the Senate.

Absent the quick tempo and heated exchanges that marked the upper chamber’s committee hearings on the legislation, a panel of state representatives deliberated its bill for nearly 12 hours, taking expert and public comments without proposing amendments. The proceedings were the latest sign of the lower chamber’s approach to the priority property tax package — which the chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee said they would “fully understand before we get into the debate and discussion.”

That, he said, “is how we have discussions in the Texas House.”

During the Senate committee’s proceedings, public testimony was largely limited to two minutes — a strategy designed to allow everyone who wished to testify the opportunity to do so, according to the office of state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, chair of the committee.

As the Ways and Means Committee meeting wore on Wednesday, some witnesses complained that homeowners hadn’t been called until well into the evening and that many had departed before their turn came.

But the thorough approach was set early in the day by committee Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, the committee chair who began proceedings on the reform bill by saying he hoped the 11-member panel would hear comments and “talk about ideas that can make the bill better in either direction.”

After, “the committee can collaborate and can work and try to come up with a bill that is right,” he said. “[We’re] not just trying to get something across the finish line as quick as we can.”

The Senate tax committee passed its version of the property tax reform bill, with amendments, earlier this month. It has not yet been debated by the full upper chamber. As drafted, both versions of the legislation would require that cities, counties and special taxing districts receive voter approval before increasing property tax revenues 2.5 percent more than the previous year. Revenue from new developments would not count toward the 2.5 percent threshold.

Burrows seemed open to other rates Wednesday, but he explained why he filed the bill at 2.5 percent.

“If property taxes continue to go up year after year at 8 percent, they will double in nine years,” he said. “At 4 percent, it takes now 17 years to double, 35 to quadruple. And at 2.5 percent, it takes 28 years for somebody’s property taxes to double, and 56 years for them to quadruple.”

An election trigger could be tied to a price or wage index — or based on “simple math,” Burrows said.

Currently, voters can petition to have an election if revenue growth surpasses 8 percent, a figure supporters of the legislation say was set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s.

The reforms are a big-ticket item for state leaders. Though they are unlikely to reduce individual tax bills — a concern for residents who say their incomes have not kept pace with rising property values — they could tamp down the rate of a jurisdiction’s property tax revenue growth.

The legislation also proposes a battery of modifications to how properties are appraised, with an aim of making the process more transparent and less subjective.

Still, as Burrows noted Wednesday, the 2.5 percent election trigger has “captured most of the headlines,” and several witnesses were asked Wednesday to help identify a more palatable number.

“Do you think 8 percent is where it ought to be, or do you think it should be lower?” Burrows asked Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson.

“I think we’re engaging in that conversation with you guys,” she responded, listing a number of factors she thought should be taken into account.

Two dozen big-city mayors proposed using a formula to tailor the trigger to each jurisdiction, in a letter to the committee chair dated Feb. 26. Six mayors testified on behalf of the group, stressing they were remarking “on” the bill — a neutral position — not against it.

Bettencourt noted a new attitude coming from mayors Thursday.

“The Mayors came in with solutions this time because they just said NO last time,” he said. “That’s progress.”

Despite the generally placid tone Wednesday, the hearing exposed some of the party-line fissures that have animated the property tax reform effort so far. Mayors were questioned by GOP lawmakers about why having an election trigger would force them to cut their budgets. Municipal leaders said population growth and unfunded mandates were tying their hands. And many homeowners, who supported a trigger at 2.5 percent, spoke of their difficulty paying rising tax bills on top of other expenses.

Near 11 p.m., the Speaker of the House, Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, walked through the hearing room to greet lawmakers and watch the proceedings.

In 2017, property tax proposals left the House and Senate at an impasse during both the regular and special sessions. The lower chamber proposed that an election be triggered at 6 percent revenue growth, while the upper chamber pushed for 4 percent.

In a move Bettencourt has jokingly called a “compromise,” Gov. Greg Abbott pitched a 2.5 percent rate in advance of the 2019 session. A poll from Quinnipiac University, released this week, found voters largely supported the idea of requiring local governments to get voter approval before “increasing property taxes” more than 2.5 percent.

Still, lawmakers’ public support for the 2.5 percent threshold has appeared to wane. Republicans have cast the figure as a starting point. Prominent Democrats on the committee — state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin — have said the figure is a non-starter.

“For the number now to shift downward by a point and a half to 2.5,” Martinez Fischer said, “my natural reaction and response to that is, ‘Well, my 6 becomes 7.5.’”

And a major component of the reform package has yet to be unveiled. The bulk of property taxes statewide are levied by school districts, with state dollars flowing in after local revenue has been accounted for. The property tax reform proposal has inserted placeholder language for schools, as lawmakers’ wait on sprawling public education bills to be filed.

Martinez Fischer, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, said of the lower chamber’s approach: “we don’t care about getting it done first; we care about getting it done right.”

“Everybody seems to want to live this policy through the lens of 2017,” he said. “I take the mayors at their word that they’re going to work hard, they’re going to come up with a collective solution. I take the chairman at his word that he wants our input and is hoping to make this bill better.”

Members of the House Committee on Ways and Means listen to testimony on HB 2 on Feb. 27, 2019. Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / The Texas Tribune

GOP lawmaker ‘open to ideas from all across the spectrum’ on property tax cap

By: Asher Price

The head of a Texas House committee overseeing marquee GOP legislation to constrain property tax increases said Wednesday that he was open to shifting the bill in whatever direction gets it “right.”

Hoping to “make the bill better in either direction,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and author of the proposal, said he thinks the “committee can collaborate to get something that’s right — not just get something across the finish line as quick as we can.”

That ecumenical approach included, perhaps, an implicit swipe at the Senate Property Tax Committee, which hustled its version of property tax legislation out the door earlier this month by a 4-0 vote, with the committee’s sole Democrat abstaining. That bill has yet to reach a vote on the Senate floor with opposition from a key Republican senator.

The decision by Burrows to opt for a slower rollout in the House reflects the broader posture of the Texas House — the more closely divided chamber — to more closely wed property tax legislation with school financing.

“They work in tandem, they’re married,” Burrows said.

House Bill 2 would require taxing districts with $15 million or more in combined property and sales tax revenue to obtain voter approval for property tax increases that lead to collections more than 2.5 percent higher than those in the previous year, not including new property on the appraisal rolls.

Currently, state law allows local governments to collect 8 percent more in property tax revenue before they can be forced by petition to hold an election. Local officials have said the tax proposals would hamstring their ability to provide everything from emergency services to park maintenance.

The House two years ago approved a 6 percent property tax cap 105-41, with most Democrats opposing it. The Senate approved a 4 percent cap in 2017. But leaders of the two chambers couldn’t reach a compromise and both measures failed to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

This year, Democrats hold 12 more House seats, and they have said they want to focus on sending more state money to schools. And some rural Republicans have suggested the 2.5 percent cap is too restrictive.

The Senate has taken much the same approach as last time around, acting swiftly and forcefully.

During a contentious hearing, Senate Property Tax Committee Chairman Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweaked some of the witnesses at his committee’s hearing, asking local officials why they were against property tax relief for their constituents. The mayor of McKinney, the county seat of conservative Collin County, accused him at one point of taking cheap shots from the dais.

Back-and-forth with local officials was far less prickly for the House committee on Wednesday, with Burrows asking people like Ginger Nelson, the mayor of Amarillo, whether she thought the rollback rate ought to be 8 percent — or closer to the 2.5 percent in his bill.

She told him she had to mull over more closely the consequences of different tax rate constraints.

And the hearing simply moved on to the next witness.

“My sincerest hope is that we get ideas from all across the spectrum to deliberate on,” Burrows said at one point. “My goal is to work with all the members of the committee to try to see what we can sort out.”

Burrows got praise at the outset of the hearing — which had at least 130 people sign up to testify, ranging from taxpayers angry about their property tax bills to mayors suggesting property tax restraints could harm their public safety budgets — from state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, for having an open mind to talk about property tax matters.

The wonky tone was set early on with lengthy testimony by Dale Craymer, head of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

Craymer said his group was neutral on the bill.

As far as transparency and simplifying of tax bills and appraisal valuations, the “body of this bill is more far-reaching than anything we have had the opportunity to work on before,” he said.

But his group was not endorsing the bill as written because “we think that (the 2.5 percent rollback rate) is probably too low. It’s appropriate to give (taxing) jurisdictions more flexibility than that.”

Rep. Dustin Burrows Introduces Legislation Related to Wayfair Decision and Third Party Sellers

Legislation will help level the playing field between Texas small businesses and national (remote) sellers

Today, Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) filed House Bill 1525 which would ease the administrative burden on small to medium-sized remote sellers that are using the national providers’ platforms by requiring the providers to collect sales tax. This would accelerate collection of taxes that are currently due under Texas law on sales of taxable items by remote sellers. This administrative change could potentially mean an additional $300 million in state and local sales tax revenue for Texas in the first full fiscal year of collections. Currently, national marketplace providers have no responsibilities related to the taxes due on sales made by third party sellers on these platforms.

In the Senate, House Bill 1525 is a companion bill of Senate Bill 890, filed by Senator Jane Nelson (R- Flower Mound).

Rep. Burrows said, “The legislation defines marketplace providers as those that own or operate a marketplace and process sales or payments for third-party sellers. Marketplace providers such as Etsy Inc., eBay, and Amazon would have all the rights and duties of a seller for sales made through the marketplace, including collection and audit responsibilities.”

Senator Nelson said, “This legislation is needed to ensure that we fairly implement the Supreme Court decision regarding online sales tax without placing an undue burden on remote sellers.”

The local tax due would be assessed on the taxable item’s destination in Texas. The proposed bills are part of a broader Texas legislative response to the June 2018 U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair, which allowed states to require remote sellers, meaning those without any physical presence in a state, to collect sales tax.

“This bill is good news for Texas small businesses and retailers who comply with sales tax regulation,” said Burrows. “This bill helps level the playing field by allowing the state to require remote sellers to collect and remit taxes in much the same way it requires countless businesses large and small who have a physical presence here in Texas to act as responsible partners with the state by collecting and remitting these taxes.”

HB 2 Property Tax Legislation

Filed January 31, 2019

The Speaker, Lt. Governor, and Governor jointly agree that property tax reform is an important issue for the legislature to address this session. While the legislature does not set–or collect–property taxes, the legislature is still responsible for ensuring the property tax system is fair, transparent, and accountable.

HB 2 by Burrows, like its identical companion in the Senate, starts the House down the path in accomplishing meaningful property tax reform. As filed, HB 2 includes provisions intended to increase transparency in the property tax rate calculations; make it easier for property taxpayers to navigate the appraisal review board process; and empower citizens to have a direct say in significant increases in property tax rates.

Now that the legislation is filed, it will work its way through the legislative process, with members and stakeholders being able to weigh in on its various concepts and the manner in which those goals are addressed.

Overview of HB 2 as filed

  • Transparency.
    • The current notification requirements for property tax rates are complex and difficult for the lay person to understand.
    • HB 2 modifies the process by which taxing jurisdictions set property tax rates by strengthening the notification provisions prior to jurisdictions adopting rates, and by making the changes easier to comprehend.
  • Reforming the Appraisal Review Board process.
    • Taxpayers protest their property tax values to the Appraisal Review Boards, which frequently are the last stop in the protest process.
    • HB 2 seeks to make these hearings more taxpayer friendly by modifying how the notices of hearings are given, and changing the times in which taxpayers may appear before the board, among other modifications.
  • Rollback rates.
    • The “no-new-revenue tax rate” as set forth in HB 2 (currently the “effective tax rate”) is the property tax rate in the current year that would raise the same revenue for the taxing jurisdiction as the previous year on property that is taxable in both the current tax year and the preceding tax year, given the current year’s property values. The rollback rate is the amount of increase above the no-new-revenue tax rate a jurisdiction may increase property tax rates without a vote to limit the property tax rate growth.
    • HB 2 as filed changes the rollback rate from 8% to 2.5% for all taxing districts with more than $15 million in combined property and sales tax revenue.
  • Voter engagement.
    • Under current law, if a property tax jurisdiction sets the current year’s property tax rate higher than the rollback rate, voters may petition the jurisdiction to hold a rollback election to cap the tax rate increase at the rollback rate.
    • As filed, HB 2 would change this election to a ratification election, giving voters the power automatically to vote on a property tax rate increase that exceeds the rollback rate.


In 2012, there were 19 Republican women in the Texas House. Now, there are six.

By: Alex Samuels

For female Republicans looking to become freshmen in the Texas Legislature, last year was the year of the woman — or, if you want to include both of them, women.

Candy Noble and Angela Paxton were the only freshman female Republicans elected to the Texas House and Senate, respectively, amid a surge of women running for office.

Noble and Paxton exemplify what’s widely viewed as a dearth of female GOP lawmakers in the Legislature. In the Senate, the number of Republican women serving is at an all-time high, but they make up less than a third of the chamber’s GOP-held seats. Across the rotunda, the gender gap is far more visible: Of the 83 Republicans serving, six are women. Democratic women, by comparison, hold 27 of the party’s seats.

As recently as 2012, 19 Republican women served in the House.

“When I first came in, we had a lot of Republican women and then [we had] more the next few election cycles,” said state Rep. Geanie Morrison, of Victoria, who was first elected in 1998 and whose tenure is tied for the longest for a Republican woman in the Texas House. “We need to reach out and particularly recruit the next generation of young Republican women to get involved.”

The lack of female GOP lawmakers isn’t confined to Texas. There has been a steady decline overall in the number of Republican women elected to serve in legislatures across the country and in Congress. What stands out in the current makeup of the Texas Legislature, lawmakers and political operatives say, is that after an election year in which voters likely saw more women on the ballot than usual, only one party saw major gains in female representation.

“As a body, we don’t go out and recruit actively,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who chairs the House Agriculture & Livestock Committee. “I think the Democrats have done a better job of looking for females to run in races, whereas Republicans just look at whoever comes through. We ought to maybe learn something from that playbook.”

Several political operatives and former and current lawmakers chalk up the partisan gender gap at the Capitol to a number of factors: a lack of influential conservative organizations to support would-be candidates, a greater emphasis in the Republican party on recruiting candidates based on experience over gender and intraparty politics that lead some Republicans to alienate people — especially women — with more moderate views.

“In my last session … I felt like I had to make votes based on my party affiliation and not what felt right in my heart of hearts,” said Patricia Harless, a Republican from Spring who stepped down from her House seat after the 2015 legislative session. “At that point, if I can’t be true to myself and do what I think is right, then I don’t need to be there.

“When I left office, I thought it would be easier to help recruit women, but getting a commitment to run for the state Legislature is literally like pulling teeth. Women don’t want to have to fight their party to do what’s best.”

Despite Republican women’s modest numbers, the party still holds a considerable majority in both chambers. But, as Austin-based Republican consultant Adryana Aldeen points out, “the party can grow” when it comes to getting more women, Hispanics and millennials to run for office.

“We have strong Republican women groups across the state, but yes, the party can improve,” Aldeen said. “Hopefully in the next election we can run behind and beside the women running. I’m not disappointed with our Republican women. I just want to see more elected.”

That’s not to say women aren’t trying. During last year’s primaries, Emily Kebodeaux Cook, a first-time political candidate, was one of many Republican women who challenged male incumbents or ran for open seats at the Legislature.

In Cook’s case, she ran against incumbent Rep. Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, who won the primary with 59 percent of the vote, compared with Cook’s 41 percent. Cook said she ran because she disagreed with Bailes’ voting record during the past legislative session. She added, however, that “the Republican Party will be stronger overall when it’s not just one side of the aisle that has elected officials who look like our daughters.”

But campaigning as a Republican woman comes with its own set of hurdles. Cook said when voters brought up her gender as she and her team went canvassing, those questions often came from other women — rather than men — which she found “astonishing.”

“While a man might ask me where I stood on policy matters,” Cook said, “the first question from another woman would be, ‘How can you balance raising a young family with serving in elected office?’”

The gender skew of politics extends far beyond the state Legislature. At the national level, news outlets are pouncing on the gender disparity in Congress. Earlier this year, West Virginia’s Carol Miller was the only Republican freshman woman to enter the 435-member House, joining an already small group of 12 female GOP lawmakers. In the U.S. Senate, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee was the only female freshman Republican to enter the 100-member body.

Anne Moses, the president and founder of Ignite, a group focused on getting more women to run for office, said that after the 2016 election, there were three Democratic women in Congress for every Republican woman.

After the 2018 election, the ratio jumped to 5-to-1, Moses said.

“Regardless of what political party you align with, that should be very disturbing,” she said. “If we think there’s a benefit to having women’s voices in Congress — or in any governing body — then we need it on both sides of the aisle.”

In the Texas Legislature, Republican men are more than aware of the need for more gender diversity in their ranks.

“We need female candidates in the Republican Party more than ever before,” House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said during a speech Wednesday to the Texas Young Republicans that largely emphasized the need for Republicans to increase its appeal to women voters.

But several current and former female lawmakers praised those in power for vaulting GOP women into chair positions. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tapped each of the five returning female senators to lead committees. In the House, Bonnen appointed three of the five returning GOP women — Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, Angie Chen Button of Richardson and Morrison — as committee chairs. State Rep. John Zerwas also named Sarah Davis of West University Place the chair of a House budget subcommittee.

“The Republican women of the Texas House are unequivocally instrumental to the success of our caucus and our chamber,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “Our Republican leadership has placed their full faith in the abilities of each of these women and remains confident they will utilize their platforms to inspire the next generation of Republican Texas women.”

Even the two freshmen will have sway inside the Capitol: Paxton earned a coveted spot as vice chair of the Senate’s property tax committee, which will shepherd this session’s priority legislation. Noble, meanwhile, was selected to serve on the policy committee for the the Texas House Republican Caucus. Neither returned requests for comment.

“Republican Texas women are out there,” Button said. “I want Republican Texas women, particularly racial minorities, to see that they, too, can run for office and hold leadership positions in our government.”

And looking ahead to what’s expected to be a blockbuster 2020 election, many Republicans see a prime opportunity to increase the clout of GOP women.

“We need to do a good job of recruiting for the 12 Republican seats we lost and find 12 good, strong ladies with conservative values to run in those seats,” Springer said.

The Texas Federation of Republican Women, a group that actively supports GOP candidates running for political office, said it’s already laying the foundation to help those considering political careers. Karen Newton, the group’s president, said it’s holding a “development class” in March to help prepare women thinking about running in 2020 — what she hopes will be the first step toward having a Legislature that’s “more balanced and more representative of the state.”

Morrison said she’s been working with the group to help recruit and mentor GOP women interested in running for office so “they know they have a support system in place.”

Republican men, too, are talking about the need to have more women serve in the Legislature.

“We just need to get [strong, conservative women] to run,” said state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who chairs the House Corrections Committee. “Obviously, the more people you have at the table from diverse backgrounds, the most likely it is you will develop strategies and policies and solutions that can appeal to a broad majority.”

Even Democrats are hoping more women will be serving in the Capitol come 2020 — regardless of party.

“Frankly, I’d be happy to just have more women in the Legislature. Period,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. “I’m a chick who wants more chicks to work with and can see how awesome it is.”

Klick said that getting more conservative female voices in the room starts with Republicans simply asking well-known, respected community leaders to consider careers in politics.

The Fort Worth representative added that she would “like to see more women running and being successful but in our side of the aisle.” But she’s staying optimistic and said the low number of GOP women serving can be an opportunity for those in the Capitol to have their voices magnified.

“We’re still here and we still matter,” Klick said. “There’s just fewer of us.”

Texas House Democrats made big progress in 2018. Will they capitalize on it in 2019?

By: Cassandra Pollock

By the end of the Texas Legislature’s 2017 regular session, Democrats in the House were beleaguered.

Democrats had held few positions of power. They had watched GOP members pass conservative legislation they could do little about. And, in the waning days of the session, they had mustered what little political sway they had to fend off a controversial bill that would ban “sanctuary cities” — to no avail.

This session, things seem different. Democrats gained a dozen seats in the House, narrowing Republicans’ majority in the lower chamber. They were tapped to chair more committees that handle high-profile legislation. And, perhaps most notably, the newly elected Republican House speaker tapped a Democrat to serve as second-in-command — a gesture of bipartisanship.

That progress, the most Texas Democrats have made in years, has left some members grappling with a question: How can they capitalize on it?

“I think for Democrats to be successful in bringing some real wins this session, we need to stand firm together,” said freshman state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Driftwood Democrat who flipped her House seat in November. “We need to make the case to some of our Republican colleagues that what we stand for is what their voters want as well.”

Zwiener and other Democratic freshmen who flipped longtime GOP-held seats are still excited about their long-shot victories on the campaign trail and want to translate that momentum into ambitious legislative wins at the Capitol. But more seasoned Democrats, familiar with how things work at the Capitol and emphasizing that their party is still in the minority, suggest that a more measured approach could land them the support needed to pass policy they’ve championed over the years.

“I think the early indications are encouraging,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune. “But we have a long way to go.”

Turner was unanimously re-elected to chair the House Democratic Caucus last month. Despite his party’s gains and Democrats’ heightened optimism, members are aware of a few sobering realities: Republicans can still pass legislation without a single Democratic vote; Republicans chair the five most powerful committees in the lower chamber; and Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, though he’s moved to cast himself as a leader who will give every member a fair shake, ranks more ideologically conservative than his predecessor.

“We can’t let our guard down,” Turner said. “We know there could be proposals that are offensive or detrimental to our constituents. And we’ll be prepared to fight those if and when they arise.”

House Republicans, to be clear, also recognize they still have the upper hand in the chamber — although GOP leaders so far have focused the 86th legislative session on reforming nuts-and-bolts policy issues that both parties agree need legislative fixes: school finance and property tax reform.

“The State of Texas remains a deeply red state; the House’s Republican majority and slate of Republican statewide leaders are a reflection of our state’s desire for a conservative approach to governance,” said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, in a statement to the Tribune. “What makes this session unique is not the number of Democrats or Republicans, but the fact we’re all united behind the same priorities to reform Texas’ school finance system and provide meaningful property tax reform for Texans.”

The Democrats’ agenda

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott officially declared school finance and property tax reform “emergency items,” along with school safety, disaster response, increasing teacher pay and mental health programs. And the week before that, Abbott, Bonnen, Burrows and Senate leaders unveiled a unified vision for slowing property tax bill increases. Democrats generally agree that those issues should take center stage this year, but they’re quick to emphasize that their No. 1 priority — addressing public education — has been at the top of their list for years.

In both the school finance reform and property tax debates, Democrats have already laid down a few markers. With the former, party leaders want reforms to include addressing rising health care costs for teachers and expanding pre-K for Texas children. With the latter, they’ve already written off the GOP’s proposal to require voter approval for local property tax increases over 2.5 percent as “a nonstarter.”House Democrats have yet to put forward their own proposals, but they’re expected to do so in the coming weeks.

“I can’t speak for every Democrat, but 2.5 percent just seems too low,” said state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat who serves on the committee that will handle property tax legislation this year. “If nothing passes — for many Democrats, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Beyond that, Democrats are pushing for a slate of more partisan measures that aren’t expected to get much air time at the still GOP-dominated Legislature. Democrats want to curb “voter disenfranchisement,” an issue that’s surfaced in recent weeks after the Texas secretary of state’s office spearheaded a flawed voter citizenship check. They also want to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“I think we need to be talking about Medicaid expansion every single day we are here,” said Zwiener, the freshman from Driftwood. Zwiener, a new mom, also mentioned Democrats are aiming to extend Medicaid’s postpartum coverage from two to 12 months.

“I had a baby seven months ago,” she said, “and I can tell you there are lingering health concerns that come up past that 60-day window.”

“We’re not going to agree on everything”

The confidence embodied by Democrats comes partially from the fact that Bonnen, the House speaker, appointed party members in January to chair several high-profile committees previously headed by Republicans. For example, Turner was tapped to chair the Higher Education Committee. Similar appointments happened on committees that oversee homeland security, public health and transportation, among others.

But the gains made by Democrats have also prompted some growing pains. A number of those dozen Democratic freshmen have privately raised questions over everything from caucus leadership to whether their 67-member voting bloc will hold when the lower chamber is faced with a key vote. As one freshman member put it, the caucus “has no plan,” suggesting it was perhaps “just a function of being out of power for so long.”

The “freshmen excitement” — or angst, as others may call it — is commonplace at the Capitol every two years as the biennial legislative session gets underway. For state Rep. Victoria Neave, a Democrat who flipped her Dallas-area seat in 2016, the feeling is all too familiar.

“We’re not going to agree on everything — I think folks will learn that,” she said. “I learned that as a freshman coming from a former swing district. I think we need to work together, but there are some things for which we’re going to take our earrings off.”

Some of the more senior Democrats have suggested that the freshmen class is still transitioning from campaign mode and will settle in around March or April when things heat up at the Legislature. They’re also quick to note that Turner, who just began his second term in that caucus role, deserves credit for taking on the arduous task of rebuilding his party’s ranks in the House.

Since Turner took the reins, he’s brought on full-time leadership staff, who spearhead a lot of the policy and communications between caucus members, among other things. Turner also doled out roughly $240,000 of his own campaign cash during the 2018 cycle for get-out-the-vote efforts and to help House incumbents and candidates locked in tight races, according to his office.

“I think there’s an intentional strategy by Turner to bring more people into the decision-making process,” said state Rep. Mary González, a Democrat from Clint who holds leadership positions in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the new LGBTQ Caucus. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we navigate as a caucus this session because he has already set us up for success.”

For now, most everyone is publicly optimistic about what lies ahead over the next roughly 100 days at the Capitol. And for Democrats, they’re acknowledging the more palatable tone that’s been set by state leaders.

“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” Turner said last week in response to Abbott’s State of the State address. He added with a chuckle, “It seems as though election results have consequences.”


Rep. Dustin Burrows Introduces Legislation to Protect First Responders from Illegal Denials of Workers’ Compensation Insurance Claims

Today, Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) and four joint authors filed House Bill 1521 which would penalize insurers that illegally deny Texas first responders access to medical treatment for line-of- duty injuries covered under state workers’ compensation laws.

This proposed legislation would amend Section 415.021 of the Labor Code to add sanctions, administrative penalties, and other remedies, including attorney’s fees, for administrative violations by self- or collectively insured municipalities obligated to cover eligible workers’ compensation claims. The amount of the administrative penalty shall not be less than two times the total amount of benefits payable in connection with the first responder employee’s claim.

Rep. Burrows said, “The current workers compensation system for firefighters and police officers in Texas is plagued by delays and abuse. Private insurers have largely been replaced by cities that are either self-insured or in a risk pool. This has resulted in widespread denials and delays by the cities when it comes to nearly any on duty related injury or illness.”

Joint authors of HB 1521 are Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), Rep. Oscar Longoria (D-La Joya), Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas).

Rep. Moody said, “Our first responders are provided workers compensation coverage in the case of an injury or illness that has occurred because of their duty. The system is doing a bad job at providing this now and HB 1521 would go a long way to push the reform needed. Abusing fire fighters and police officers by putting them through a process of denial and bureaucracy is not what was originally intended.”

Rep. Meyer said, “We must ensure that Texas first responders have access to fair and uniform workers compensation benefits consistent with the rest of the insurance industry.”

Rep. Longoria said, “The workers’ compensation system has failed too many Texas first responders, including my constituent, Homer Salinas, a Mission firefighter and cancer survivor. Homer won four rounds of workers’ comp proceedings to get his cancer treatment covered, yet he was sued by the City of Mission to reverse prior decisions in Homer’s favor. House Bill 1521 is an important step toward ensuring that our hero first responders are not denied the medical treatment they have earned through their service under Texas law. Mr. Salinas should be focused on his health and protecting his community – not fighting for benefits he’s earned.”

Rep. Leach said, “First responders are critical to the safety and security of our Texas communities. We must treat them fairly when the hazards they encounter every day in the line of duty result in injury or illness. HB 1521 clarifies current state law and holds municipalities acting as workers compensation providers to the same standard as all other insurers in the State of Texas.”

The proposed legislation is supported by the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters (TSAFF), which includes more than 18,000 professional firefighter members in 182 Texas communities.

Studies show firefighters are at increased risk for cancers and other illnesses caused by on-the-job exposure to hazardous materials. For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has cited the higher risks of kidney cancer that firefighters face. Chapter 607 of the Texas Government Code, Texas’ “presumptive” law, covers related medical care, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. The statute provides that Texas firefighters are entitled to receive the medical treatment they have earned as they risked their own lives protecting others.