UH Experts: What to Expect from the 2015 Texas Legislative Session

The Texas Legislature opened its session this week under new leadership following the biggest shakeup seen in this generation— including a new governor and lieutenant governor. While political dynamics are at play, so are a number of important issues, including tax cuts, transportation, education and immigration.  Brandon Rottinghaus and Jason Casellas, both associate professors of political science at the University of Houston, recently shared their insights on what to expect from Texas lawmakers this session. 

Rottingahus and Casellas are available to speak to the media about various issues related to the session.

Rottinghaus can be reached at 713-743-3925 or bjrottinghaus@uh.edu.

Casellas, who can also assist Spanish-language outlets, can be reached at 713-743-8714 or jcasella@central.uh.edu. 

We have an unprecedented turnover in the Texas government and its leadership. What are your expectations on how that will play out this session?

Rottinghaus: You’ve got a real institutional battle at play here. We could end up with a lot of harmony, everyone agrees and at the end of the day there is lots of legislation produced, or it could turn into a shooting match where everyone is going in their own direction and nobody gets anything done. 

With respect to the governor and lieutenant governor, I don’t think there is a much of a difference between them in how to approach things, the question is what to approach. Greg Abbott says he wants to spend a lot of money on a lot of things. He’s talked about education and he’s talked about $4 billion on transportation. On the other hand, you’ve got the lieutenant governor who wants to spend more money on border security and big pot of money on tax relief. Who, exactly, gets to the set the stage here is really a question.

New state comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that lawmakers will have $113 billion for the next two-year budget. If oil prices below $50 barrel, how might it impact the budget? 

Casellas: If the oil prices stay this low, then the number new Texas Comptroller Glenn Hagar put out is going to be wrong, because Texas relies so heavily on the oil and gas industry. There is a big Rainy Day Fund, so the extent to which the legislature will want to tap into that $ 11 billion savings to plug some of those holes will be interesting to watch. Gov. Perry, as you recall, did not really want to tap into that Rainy Day Fund.

With the passage of Proposition 1 to direct some money from the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund, what can we expect on transportation funding? 

Rottinghaus: There is no doubt that the state will spend some money on transportation. All of West Texas needs to have its roads re-done because of the boom in oil and I think this is a major issue for the most conservative Republican and the most liberal Democrat.

A lot of the newly elected and re-elected officials in Texas ran on a platform that included some sort of tax relief. Will Texans see tax cuts?

Rottinghaus: I don’t know how far the legislature will go with tax relief, but you have options. You could have a small option, where it’s the compact mini-car of tax relief—a reduction in sales tax or a reduction in property taxes by increasing homestead exemptions. This is going to cost Texas around $1 billion. The big ticket, fully loaded SUV Escalade option is going to be the prospect of having a bigger tax reform. So, perhaps removing the franchise tax, which would cost the state $5 billion a year. This has been something business has been pushing for a long time. Between $1 billion and $5 billion is likely where we’ll see some tax reform, and I think everyone will leave the session pretty happy with respect to tax reform.

Casellas: The cuts may not be as big as some of the campaigners wanted because of the precarious budget situation, but tax cuts are something we will probably see. 

Education is always a big issue during legislative session—whether it’s K-12 or Higher Education. What do you expect? 

Rottinghaus: I think K-12 education funding is an issue that is likely to get kicked into the next session. The Texas Supreme Court is likely to hear the case of education funding crisis. Already we’ve had the lower courts rule it unconstitutional. I think the legislature is going to be willing to wait and push it down the road until they get some guidance from the court as to exactly why the court ruled the issue to be unconstitutional.

Casellas: Higher education is always an easy target, so to speak. There have already been drastic cuts in higher education— if you look at state support of public universities in Texas over the years, it’s been a consistent decline. There are a couple bills in the legislature dealing with tuition re-regulation. If the legislature wants to get back in to regulating tuition in universities, will they also increase funding? There is going to be a need to make balanced budgets in universities. How will all of that equalize? It is going to be fascinating to watch.

For assistance in arranging media interviews with Rottinhaus or Casellas, please contact Shawn Lindsey at selindsey@uh.edu or Marisa Ramirez at mrcannon@uh.edu.