AUSTIN — The 86th Texas Legislature convened on Jan. 8 with all its customary ceremonies and recognitions— chief of which was the unanimous election of a new House speaker — Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen.

On Jan. 9, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, and Speaker Bonnen announced their joint commitment to passing legislation that would improve how public education is funded. That arduous and heretofore divisive task means rethinking and recalibrating what share of the cost would be funded by local property taxes — public education’s primary source of funding. 

Patrick predicted this legislative session would be different from previous ones. “If the three of us are aligned, that we’re going to accomplish a mission and pass legislation, it happens,” said Patrick. “This is not just a message to the public and to the media, but I think our members will take note, that this is really unprecedented, that we’re addressing these issues at the beginning of session, totally united with one another.” Patrick added that he would name a new Senate committee on property taxes to work on a plan.

House and Senate committee hearings will begin as soon as Patrick and Bonnen have selected chairs and members for each panel. Lawmakers must keep in mind that the comptroller’s office has estimated the cost of public education, the biggest of all drivers of the state budget, at about $63 billion in fiscal 2018-2019. 

Ideas to streamline and increase the efficiency of public education came last month from the Commission on Public School Finance. Among other things, the commission suggested moving $3.5 billion in existing state resources away from “outdated programs or obsolete hold-harmless provisions” into new strategies. 

The commission’s report also calls for a halt to the continuing decrease in state resources allocated to public education, and directing more money toward students who need it most, such as low-income, special needs and English language learners. 

Revenue estimate is given

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Jan. 7 released his biennial revenue estimate, this one covering the state’s 2020-2021 budget years.

Hegar said a strong national economy and rising oil prices over most of 2018 left the state with 8 percent more revenue than two years ago, or $119.1 billion in total general revenue available.

However, he said, “Despite this projected revenue growth, the Legislature will again face some difficult choices in balancing the budget. The most pressing and costly budget drivers for the upcoming session include a potentially large boost in education spending to reduce the property tax burden and reform school finance.”

“Texas remains economically well positioned compared to other states and we will continue to outpace the U.S. economy in the long term,” Hegar added. However, he also noted that the price of oil has been down since October, federal interest rates are up and both the global economy and U.S. trade policy remain uncertain. 

Meanwhile, the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly referred to as the “Rainy Day Fund,” currently contains about $12.5 billion, not counting currently outstanding spending authority. Absent any legislative appropriations, the balance of the fund is expected to be $15.4 billion at the end of the 2020-21 biennium, Hegar said.

Monthly revenue reported

Comptroller Hegar on Jan. 9 announced his office would send cities, counties, transit systems and special-purpose taxing districts $734.7 million in local sales tax allocations for January, an amount 3.6 percent more than sent in January 2018. Allocations are based on sales made in November by businesses that report tax monthly.

Julian Castro announces

Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro of San Antonio on Jan. 12 formally announced his candidacy for president in 2020.He is a Democrat.

Castro, 44, a former mayor of San Antonio and twin brother of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, is the first Texan to declare his candidacy for the next presidential race.

Oldest veteran laid to rest

Richard A. Overton of Austin, who died Dec. 27 at age 112, was buried in the Texas State Cemetery on Jan. 12 with full military honors.

Overton, who was in the U.S. Army from 1940 to 1945, served in the Pacific during World War II. He was America’s oldest man and oldest military veteran.

Head of state agency dies

The Texas Workforce Commission on Jan. 7 announced its executive director, Larry Temple, died Jan. 5. He was 66. 

Temple joined the agency in 1997, serving first as director of welfare reform for six years. He had served as executive director since 2004.