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Capital Highlights: Observers welcome quiet opening to Legislature

Chris Cobler
Chris Cobler

The Texas Legislature opened quietly, which delighted everyone after the violence inside the U.S. Capitol the previous week.

At the Texas State Capitol, a variety of legislative agendas took center stage at the start of the 87th session, which will run 140 days. Gov. Greg Abbott’s goals include ensuring Texans have access to high-quality healthcare, improving public safety, getting Texans back to work and promoting the state’s economic recovery.

Many other state organizations announced their agendas, too:

• The Texas Farm Bureau outlined 11 priorities, starting with protecting property owners’ rights under eminent domain law. Other legislative priorities include protecting landowners and agricultural producers’ rights to surface water and groundwater; legalizing reasonable chemical controls for feral hogs and maintaining all current legal methods of controlling feral hogs; and supporting efforts to install broadband and cellular infrastructure in underserved rural communities.

• Raise Your Hand Texas is focused on making sure public dollars remain in public schools. Some of those policy recommendations include protecting all investments made in 2019’s House Bill 3, including the funding for full-day pre-kindergarten; ensuring federal stimulus dollars are used to increase public education funding; continuing to invest in students with the goal of reaching the national average in per-student funding; and opposing any form of taxpayer subsidies to private schools and vendors, such as tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, vouchers for students in special education and virtual vouchers.

• The Texas Alliance of Energy Producers will be working with lawmakers to avoid proposals to raise taxes, impose new or higher fees, or shift additional regulatory costs onto the industry or mineral interest holders. The alliance also plans to participate in the Coalition for Critical Infrastructure to put forward reasonable solutions to address landowners’ concerns about eminent domain.

“This session will have some unique challenges due to COVID protocols and how the legislative process will be conducted,” Farm Bureau President Russell Boening said. “It will be different, but what has not changed is the importance of making sure the voices of farm and ranch families are heard at the Capitol.”

Raise Your Hand Texas officials said lawmakers can keep their promises to education despite the tight budget outlook.

“Even during this difficult budget cycle, the state has options to continue investing in and fully funding public education. These options can give our schools the ability to provide the services our students need and to effectively implement targeted interventions for learning loss that occurred over the last year due to COVID-19,” Raise Your Hand Texas wrote in a statement.

Jason Modglin, energy alliance president, encouraged lawmakers in search of revenue to consider whether all energy sources are paying as much as oil and gas producers. 

“Renewable energy projects in the state do not pay a severance tax to the state like we must do,” Modglin wrote in Shalemag.com. “Those arguing Texas and the U.S. should fully transition to renewable energy sources have offered no plan for how they will fund schools, roads and water infrastructure in the same way oil and gas severance taxes do. For example, electric vehicles are currently not required to pay for the use of roads like gasoline and diesel vehicles must.”

Connecting rural Texas

Regular readers of “Capital Highlights” know of readers’ high interest in improving the access to high-speed internet for rural Texans. Connected Nation Texas recently asked lawmakers to offer their thoughts on the need. 

“Many of the counties I represent do not have a hospital or even a doctor, and broadband can help bridge the healthcare gap these rural residents face,” said Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican representing West Texas’ District 28.

Connected Nation Texas does not do any lobbying for legislation, but state program director Jennifer Harris said she anticipated many lawmakers would try to offer solutions this session.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, have announced their intent to file legislation aimed at expanding access. They said their bill would “affirm the state’s commitment to closing the digital divide for Texans who lack either access to internet service or the means to subscribe to the services offered in their community.”

“The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need for reliable access to the internet and exposed the breadth of ways in which connectivity impacts daily life,” Ashby said in a statement. “It’s my hope that passage of this bill will ensure our state is serious about working to make 21st century investments in favor of economic development, education, healthcare, public safety and the many other industries which benefit from connectivity.”

The upcoming legislation includes:

• Creation of a broadband development office within the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

• A broadband development program funded by the newly established broadband development account.

• Establishment of a broadband development map to be updated regularly and published by the office.

The development within a year of a statewide broadband plan.

Chris Cobler is a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He welcomes email at ccobler@texaspress.com.