TribFest Recap: Red and Blue Teams Find Common Ground Before the 88th

The Texas Tribune’s Zach Despart moderates the House Democrats’ preview of the 88th Texas Legislature, featuring Reps. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie; Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas; and Mary González, D-El Paso (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The 88th Texas Legislature, to be elected Nov. 8 and to convene on Jan. 10, faces the Herculean task of lawmaking in a sharply divided country and state with rapidly developing life-or-death issues on the agenda.

At four consecutive panels on Friday, Sept. 23, at the Texas Tribune Festival 2022, Democratic and Republican members and candidates in both chambers said they hope the 88th will be a session remembered for bipartisan compromises and solutions to “kitchen table” problems. And all seemed to agree on the most urgent issues at hand: fortifying the grid, lowering property taxes, responding to the Uvalde massacre, helping overwhelmed border towns, stopping the hemorrhage of teachers leaving their jobs, and supporting pregnant people and parents in a post-Roe era. While conservative and liberal solutions to those problems differ, here is the common ground that emerged.

The Grid and Property Taxes

State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said voters want the legislature to address “bread and butter” issues including the power grid and property taxes.

Republicans did too, but took aim at renewable energy. Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford – widely expected to replace Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Ft. Worth, in November – said subsidizing renewables “skewed the market,” while Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said, “We want renewables … But in the meantime, we have to be practical to realize, it doesn’t always blow. When it’s blowing and it’s shining, we should take advantage of that. But when it’s not, we’ve got to have dispatchable power because everyone expects to walk in and flip a switch … Right now natural gas would be that power.”

On property taxes, Democrats and Republicans all agreed that their constituents are hurting. Former Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton – expected to return to the chamber in November in the redrawn district now held by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway – said appraisal districts should make their appraisals in a more uniform way across counties. Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said “some on the other side like soundbites when it comes to property tax relief and so far what I’ve seen delivered … doesn’t really put anything on the table for the taxpayer.” Instead, she said the state can increase its share in education funding to lower local property tax rates.

Gun Violence

Nichols, who chairs the Texas Senate’s special committee investigating the Uvalde massacre and has a record of voting with the gun lobby, said he was open to the possibility of raising the age to buy semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21.

“There’s a lot that changes in a person’s life in those three years. All of the school shooters are between the age of 13 and 19; they’re all males,” Nichols said. “When you’re somewhere between 13 and 19, your life revolves around school. You go to classes, you’ve got friends, you’ve got bullies, you’ve got it all. … By the time you’re 21, you’re either in college, you’ve found another job, you’ve gone to work, and there’s separation.”

While raising the age has been a primary demand among Uvalde parents, gun violence inTexas extends far beyond schools; Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, pointed out that hundreds more Texans die each year at the hands of intimate partners with guns. She also emphasized the need for compromise in opposition to “the winner-take-all aspect of current leadership.”

The Border

While the Republican and Democratic panels took on entirely different tones while discussing Gov. Greg Abbott’s expensive Operation Lone Star, which has brought thousands of law enforcement officers and Texas National Guard troops to the border, both parties acknowledged issues with it. Kevin Sparks, the Midland Republican expected to succeed retiring Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said while state troopers are intent on doing their part to serve, many are saying “this is not what I signed up for.”

Meanwhile, Morgan LaMantia, the Democrat expected to succeed retiring Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, called Operation Lone Star “political theater.” “We need the governor to come down, talk to our local entities, talk to our local communities, our cities, our counties, and our nonprofits who are really taking on the brunt of the efforts to help everyone who’s coming over,” LaMantia said. “What’s happening when you don’t have border voices involved in those conversations is you’ve got one side saying, ‘We’re safe and secure and there is no problem,’ and ignoring it altogether, and we get the other side talking about how we live in a Third World area and it’s the middle of a war zone. Neither one of those are true.”

Eckhardt jumped in to point out that immigration is a federal issue, and she said state politicians who focus on it are trying to draw attention away from the real problems they do have power to solve, like the state of Texas’s foster care system (which is in shambles, with kids dying in the state’s custody). “If the state persists in blaming the feds, and blaming the locals, and then diverting our attention to stuff that the state doesn’t actually have authority in, we won’t ever get to a solution.”

Rather than seeing border problems outside the state’s jurisdiction as a distraction, or bussing migrants northward as a stunt, Flores said we shouldn’t forget that real migrants are having a real impact in real places in Texas. “When you’re overwhelmed, your community doesn’t have the resources – they barely have enough money in some of these towns for their own selves, much less thousands. Where the federal government will not do its job, Texas must.”

Teachers and Vouchers

Texas has a problem with teachers quitting, and both Republicans and Democrats agreed that “school choice” proposals touted by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, built on vouchers to transfer state funding to private schools, won’t fix that problem.Sparks said without improving their work conditions, “we’re going to continue to lose teachers.”

Nichols took a strong stance against the “school choice” framing, saying private schools can be selective while public charter schools use lotteries if they have too many prospective students. “That’s not a choice, that’s a chance.” In rural areas, he said, reducing student populations reduces funding for everything that still needs to be done in a small classroom — keeping the lights on, bussing kids to school, paying a janitor, and other basic costs.

“It doesn’t work for rural Texas,” Nichols said. “I don’t know why they – I love my governor, and I’m gonna vote for him and I encourage everybody else to vote for him, and same thing with my lieutenant governor and I know the lieutenant governor is campaigning for him, but I think they’re just wrong. The governor’s wrong on this issue and I’d love an opportunity to talk to him about it.”

Post-Roe Texas

Among all the eight senators and hopefuls who spoke, the most outwardly ready to compromise may have been Nichols, who said, yes, he’d support a bill to create an exception to Texas’s abortion bans in cases of rape and incest. How rape is defined could become a sticking point, as Democrats discussed later; Eckhardt was firm that a conviction for rape or incest could not be a prerequisite to the survivor’s seeking abortion (of course, getting a conviction often takes longer than the course of a pregnancy).

Extension of Medicaid coverage to women for 12 months post-partum is less likely to snag in the Legislature; both Republicans and Democrats have expressed support, as did House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, in his one-on-one earlier in the day at TribFest . Along similar lines, Nichols pointed to a bill he’ll file to give a minimum of four weeks of paid maternity leave for state employees, with two weeks for fathers. Democrats highlighted the need for updated language on abortions to treat risky situations such as ectopic pregnancies, but King’s comments made it clear how difficult such changes may be: “The far left side of the Democratic Party, which dominates that party nationally today – they are not wanting minor exceptions. It is a very radical push that wants abortion up unto literally the day the child is born.”

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