Texas Tribune event offers preview of upcoming legislative session

State lawmakers offered a preview of the upcoming 86th legislative session during a panel hosted by the Texas Tribune on Nov. 20.

The event, which took place in Maybee ballrooms, was sponsored by the Tribune and moderated by its chief executive officer Evan Smith. State Senators Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Kirk Watson (D- Austin) discussed issues such as school safety and mental health that are likely to come up during the next session of the state legislature.

The focus of much of the discussion, however, centered on property taxes and their link to school finance. Watson acknowledged that, as property valuations rise and taxes along with them, the state’s share of funding of schools falls proportionally. Currently, the state of Texas pays for about 38 percent of the costs of the public school system, with property taxes paying for the rest.

“There’s no question that now is the time to address this,” Watson said of property taxes.

When asked by Smith, both senators seemed reticent or outright against the proposition that property taxes should be left entirely up to the state’s voters.

“Local control is fine until it’s loco-control,” Campbell said.

Watson echoed his colleague’s sentiments.

“You respect those people you put into office to make those decisions at the local level,” Watson said.

In an interview with Hilltop Views, Watson argued that the current system of property taxes funding the public school system is “unsustainable.”

“I’ve been advocating for some time that we have to do something to change the way that we’re financing public education,” Watson said. “The state has become overly reliant, to the point of extreme, on local property values.”

According to Watson, the state budget plans on an increase of property tax rates of seven percent annually, which would drop the state’s share of spending on public education down to around 33 percent in just a few years.

“The first thing we ought to do [to reform this system] is stop the bleeding,” Watson said, referring to cuts to state tax revenue that do not correspond to a decrease in expenditures.

The two senators disagreed about the specifics of how to reform this system, with Campbell mentioning the possibility of expanding the private school voucher system and Watson mainly upholding the state’s responsibility to adequately fund public schools. The two, however, retained similar end goals.

“I don’t know if we disagree on anything – it’s how we get to that,” Watson said.

Watson, a Democrat, is a former mayor of Austin that has represented the city since 2007 and is a member of several committees in the legislature, including the Senate Higher Education and Finance committees. Campbell, a Republican, has represented New Braunfels since 2013 and chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Border Security committee.

The event began with a discussion on the recent election. Both senators won their districts handily, each beating their nearest opponent by over 10 percentage points. The election as a whole was unusually close, however, as Democrats gained several seats in both the state Senate and the House.

Campbell attributed this loss by the Republicans to “inadequate messaging,” saying that a lack of directed focus on the economic success of Texas led to a decrease in Republican support. Watson disagreed with that assessment.

“The voter said, ‘we want you to prioritize things differently,’” Watson said.