AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers are going into the next legislative session with a $27 billion budget surplus. They’re only supposed to spend about half of it, but lawmakers and organizations all have different ideas about how to use it.
For months and months, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott promised Texans that he’d use $13.5 billion to cut property taxes.
“We need to get in the session to figure out which strategy is the best strategy to use. But the people who deserve that money are the taxpayers of the state of Texas,” he recently said at a press conference.
But spending nearly $14 billion would create problems, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick cautions against that. But he says there needs to be property tax relief in Texas.
“I’ve heard some people say we should spend half the money on that, which would be about 13 billion, but that would bust the spending cap unless we find some creative ways to do it. And I think we can,” Patrick said at a recent press conference.
Mark Jones with Rice University thinks lawmakers will increase the homestead exemption to cut property taxes.
“That will be the extent of property tax relief, which for most people will mean they’ll pay somewhere between $200-250 less than they would have otherwise paid per year,” he said.
Patrick, who wields tremendous power over the state Senate, is also prioritizing construction of new natural gas energy plants, building mental health hospitals, school safety initiatives, and increasing teacher pay. Even left-leaning groups can get behind these priorities.
“If we really commit to teacher pay, to the teacher retirement system, to the electric grid, these are things that could have an impact that go way beyond just this session,” said Luis Figueroa, the chief of legislative affairs for Every Texan.
Another group, Texans Care for Children, wants millions of dollars invested into families next year. Their desires fall in line with Patrick’s plan to invest in the state’s mental health system.
“We’re talking about things like hiring mental health counselors to serve students. Also, making sure teachers have the training they need, so that they can help kids manage emotions, regulate behavior, [and] address behavioral challenges,” said Adriana Kohler, the policy director for Texans Care for Children.
The organization also wants the state to invest in child care.
“We’re in a unique position this year,” Kohler said. “Texas has additional revenue to work with that will be available this coming session. It’s critical to invest that in children. We may not be in a similar place next session or the year after that. Also, this is a unique time because a lot of federal pandemic relief is running out in the next year or two years. So in order to continue to sustain some of these great, innovative programs — effective programs — the additional revenue will be really critical to help to help children help those services get to children in need.”
Patrick will play a pivotal role in how the money is spent by what bills he puts in front of the Senate.
“What we’re going to have is, in one way, is a battle among different groups, for each constituency trying to get money spent in their area, and then a political battle between the Senate, the House and the governor’s office in terms of prioritizing where the $27 to $30 billion is going to be spent, and where it’s not going to be spent,” Jones said.