State legislators had nearly two months to return to their families and primary careers after the 85th Texas Legislature ended May 29. Monday, they’ll return to Austin for a special session that was called by the governor.
Gov. Greg Abbott released a list of 20 special session agenda items when he first announced a mid-July special session on June 6. Topics that appear to directly affect residents in the greater Killeen area include property tax reform, school finance reform commission and school choice for special needs students.
A special session cannot last more than 30 days. However, Abbott can call as many as he needs to ensure that the appropriate legislation is passed. Though sessions usually last the full 30 days, it isn’t unheard of for a session to end earlier.
The whole idea of a special session is to start from scratch. Legislators can file as many bills as they want, but only those the governor has put on a list can be considered.
At the top of the list is must-pass sunset legislation. The sunset advisory commission conducts evaluations of agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation, the Railroad Commission, the Texas Medical Board and the Texas Public Utility Commission. If the bill doesn’t pass, a handful of state agencies will not stay alive.
Rep. Scott Cosper, R-Killeen, listed the Texas State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners as groups that could suffer if legislation does not pass.
“All of these agencies are very important to our state and will be abolished if we do not pass this legislation,” he said. “I think both sides intend to pass that, we just ran out of time, I don’t expect that to be a problem.”
The sunset legislation is the only must-pass piece on the call, according to Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple. So long as it remains the only item on the call until it is passed, Shine doesn’t believe it will cause any problems.
Bills surrounding property tax reform have the potential to affect Killeen-area residents the most. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have pushed for the creation of an automatic rollback election when local property tax rates go up by a certain amount. That bill — originally called Senate Bill 2 — began with that amount at 4 percent. By the time it cleared the Senate, that number was 5 percent. Current law puts the limit at 8 percent over the effective rate.
It’s an issue that Eric Glenn from the Schlueter Group, an Austin-based lobbying company — said has the greatest impact on cities in the area.
“Really, the issue is that there are some other pieces that deal with placing caps so local spending can’t rise above the rate of inflation,” Glenn said. “Those are the things that have city leaders most concerned.”
Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway listed this as one of her top priorities. In an email to the Herald, she said she has sponsored the property tax reform bill.
“Local governments should not be able to change the rules in the middle of the game,” she said. “Anything the legislature can do to help struggling homeowners and businesses in Texas with skyrocketing property taxes and appraisals is encouraging.”
Another property tax issue is revenue lost from tax-exempt properties.
Military communities across the state are at a disadvantage with the exemption to veterans who are 100 percent disabled. Some communities, such as Killeen, receive state aid as compensation. Others, such as Harker Heights, do not, because their boundaries don’t touch a military base.
Cosper co-authored a bill with Shine that would have helped all cities throughout a county surrounding a military base. The House appropriations committee set aside $6.5 million in funding to distribute to cities affected. The bill passed through the House, but not the Senate before the session ended. Now, Cosper is giving that bill another try.
“We hope that it will be found to be germane related to the special session and look forward to providing Harker Heights, equal or greater impact than all of the entities receiving the funding,” Cosper said.
Shine was happy to co-author the bill the first time, and he’ll gladly support it in the special session, too. He doesn’t think it will have any trouble in the House this time around either, but isn’t confident that it will clear the Senate.
“I think you’ll see a lot of good legislature if the call is open for it, it just depends whether (the Senate) want to work on those issues or not,” he said.
Lan Carter is a teacher in Copperas Cove, who ran for a seat on the Killeen Independent School District’s Board of Trustees earlier this year. She also has two children who are in special education, and has been paying close attention to the topic of school choice through school vouchers. Even though Abbott and Patrick pitch the voucher program as a benefit for special ed students, Carter has seen firsthand how dangerous it can be to take money out of the hands of public schools.
Private schools don’t always have certified teachers, and sometimes don’t have the resources to teach special education students. It might sound great on the surface, but it starts to get risky when you reallocate money that once belonged to public schools.
“You’re taking away public school money and giving it to private schools where they don’t have to follow the same rules,” Carter said in a phone call Thursday. “It’s hypocritical to say we’re doing this, specifically to help special-ed kids when they don’t have the same rules. It sounds good, but when the public looks into it, they’ll say hey, I’m starting to lose my protections.”
Cosper said Thursday that he’s waiting for the language of the bill and that he wants to hear what Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood, the chairman of the public education board, has to say.
“The main concern is that we appropriately fund public education and we don’t do anything that’s going to undermine the school districts that are providing education to many of our deployed military dependants,” Cosper said.
Cosper’s wife Christy is a teacher, and his mother and father-in-law used to be educators as well. One of his two daughters is a special-education student.
Special education has been a hot-button issue throughout Texas, but especially in Killeen. The state investigated Killeen Independent School District in 2015 and found KISD delayed services to special education students for seven years. The Texas Education Agency’s investigation found that the district lacked a uniform system to track evaluations, inner-office conflicts and faulty data that led to the delays. The district reached compliance in January but some parents after that said their children were not receiving appropriate special education services.
Another controversial issue involved the installation of special-education classroom monitors for families concerned about their children who are unable to communicate problems.
KISD took nearly three months to activate the cameras after Senate Bill 507 went in effect. At the time, the district had five requests that were approved by mid-September 2016; however, cameras were not actively recording classroom activities until after Thanksgiving last year.
Among the other education-based agenda items for the special session is a $1,000 pay increase for teachers. However, the budget has already been finalized, and Abbott has not made it clear who will pay for that raise. If it falls in the hands of the local school districts, Shine isn’t on board.
“He hasn’t outlined a plan for it, when he first made the announcement, it was all teachers. Then two or three weeks later, it was some teachers, but school districts will have to figure out how to pay for it,” Shine said. ”This is why I was an author of unfunded mandate legislation. It’s leadership passing down mandates without funding it,:
Buckingham declined to comment on any of the education legislation until she saw the language of the bills.
There are several items on the agenda that seem to deal directly with developers. Among them are preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction, and speeding up local government permitting process. Shine, who is a member of the Business and Industry Committee, said that constituents haven’t brought these issues to his attention.
“I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “We did not see a lot of issues with local governments.”
The controversial bathroom bill titled “privacy,” is likely to continue to create a lot of buzz, and Abbott listed cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud on the agenda as well.