Texas lawmakers adjourn Sine Die and begin blame game

Lawmakers adjourned Sine Die a day early and while they got some bills passed -- the top priority for the Governor -- property tax reform -- wasn't one of them.

AUSTIN - Tuesday afternoon something happened in the Texas House of Representatives that most people didn't see coming. With one day left in the Special Session, the House adjourned Sine Die, ending the Session. 

So what the heck happened?

"Members, the system's broken. We know that it's broken," Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston) had said about an hour earlier. " Clearly the Senate did not have the appetite for the bill we passed out of this House with 130 people."

A disappointed and frustrated Huberty was asking his colleagues to concur with the Senate version of his school finance bill, House Bill 21.

"We, as you can imagine, have been trying night and day, night and day for the last two weeks to have a meaningful discussion. And Chairman Taylor and I have. And it's just the Senate has made it very clear that, that they believe that until there's a plan they can be comfortable with, that they're not willing to fund this. So this is the program I present to you today," Huberty said.

The Senate version of his bill is roughly $1.24 billion less than what the House wanted to spend on public schools. And the Senate added amendments to the bill to include $212 million for retired teacher health care and formed a commission to study school finance.

The House wasn't too happy with the changes. 

"This can be fixed, if you have faith in the system," Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) told her colleagues. 

"I would tell the Senate, take back this crap and fix it! Because that is what the people of this state sent us here to do,' she added, urging members not to concur with the Senate version. 

The House voted to concur with the bill; deciding not to sacrifice the good for the perfect. But Huberty isn't counting this as a win and expressed his frustration with Senators to reporters. 

"They sat on the floor [Monday] and said we don't want to spend the money. You know, I'll tell you what, we've got $12 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, the Economic Stabilization Fund. We've got a franchise tax that's broken. We made promises to our school districts back in 2006 to fully fund education, to make sure that we took care of it," Huberty said. "You can't have property tax reform without school finance reform. But we're going to continue to beat our heads against the wall. And we passed many important things but nothing was more important than school finance reform this session and I feel like we failed the 5.3 million children in the State of Texas."

But the tables can often turn under the Texas dome. The ball was in the House's court on the Senate's top priority, Senate Bill 1. The Senate voted to reduce the percentage cities and counties can increase property taxes without voter approval from 8-percent to 4-percent. The House version was 6-percent.

Senators asked for a conference committee to hash out the differences but Representative Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) said under the rules, time wasn't on their side.

"I want to be clear with my friends in the Senate. I'm not refusing a conference committee, I'm trying to keep the bill alive, just as we have been talking for several days on this bill," Bonnen said on the House floor. "If we appointed conferees now, it would kill the bill because we are out of time."

So without appointing conferees, Huberty made a motion.

"I move that we adjourn Sine Die in memory of House Bill 21," he said. 

The House adjourned, leaving the Senate with the option of accepting its version of SB1 or killing the bill. The author of the bill decided to kill it.

"We are not going to accept the take it or leave it proposal from the House," said Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who authored SB1. "And we're going to fight another day. Because Texas taxpayers deserve elected officials that fight for them another day. And if it takes years, I'll be back to fight."

After other Senators made remarks on the bill, including democrats who argued the only way to give homeowners real property tax relief is to increase state funding of public schools, the Senate followed the House's lead and adjourned Sine Die. 

Minutes later, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R) stood with Senate Republicans to address reporters, and he had strong words for the House.

"With 27 hours to go, they walked off the job," Patrick said. 

The two bills Patrick said he'd force a special session over, property tax reform (SB1) and bathroom privacy failed to pass.

The Senate-approved bill requiring people use state, city and public school restrooms according to the sex on their birth certificate or ID died in the House. Speaker of the House Representative Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) remained adamant in his opposition, saying the business community was against the bills and so was he.

But Patrick said the House should have gotten more of the 20 items Governor Greg Abbott placed on the Special Session call passed. 

"Responsibility starts at the top," Patrick said. 

"The Governor called 20 issues on the Special Session call and the Speaker said it was horse manure and he treated it like horse manure," he added. 

Governor Greg Abbott (R) declined an interview, but on the radio Wednesday morning said Speaker Straus is to blame for the House not passing more of his priorities.

Abbott's Press Secretary, John Wittman, released the following statement:

Our office believes this special session has produced a far better Texas than before.

Straus said he is proud of the House's work. Releasing the following statement:

I want to thank Governor Abbott for working with the House on his very ambitious agenda in the special session. We considered every idea carefully, listened to constituents, and acted on a number of critical issues, such as helping retired teachers. House Members voted for new limits on property-tax growth and significant school finance reforms, but in the short time available, we did not reach final agreement with the Senate on those issues. I’m grateful for the Members who fought for school finance reform and other priorities of the Texas House.

Still, some feel there is more work to be done.

"I hope the Governor calls us back as soon as possible," said Senator Bettencourt before the Senate adjourned. 

On Wednesday, Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) sent a letter to the Governor asking him to call them back. 

As the state waits for the Governor's next move, there is another factor that comes into play; redistricting. Federal judges ruled Tuesday state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities when drawing Congressional maps. Giving the Governor the option to call lawmakers back to re-draw them or let the courts do it. 

Abbott said he hasn't ruled out the possibility of calling a second special session. But for now, the state will have to wait to see what he decides. 

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