EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part report previewing 2019 state legislative sessions from a local point of view. This story focuses on the perspectives of Texarkana, Texas' state representatives. A future story will focus on Texarkana, Ark.'s delegation to Little Rock.
Texarkana's representatives to next year's Texas Legislature see property tax reform, public education funding and a new speaker of the House as the session's most significant focuses.
Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, spoke last week about the issues and bills they expect to top the agenda as the 86th Texas Legislature convenes on Jan. 8, 2019. Both expect to wrestle with how to limit local property tax increases while adequately funding schools, and both expect the election of Rep. Dennis Bonnen as speaker to help smooth passage of the Republican Party's policy program.
Hughes spoke Wednesday during a members-only luncheon held by the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce, and VanDeaver shared his thoughts in a telephone interview Friday. What to do about ever-increasing local property taxes across the state—an issue that came up during the last legislative session—was top of mind.
"I recognize that property taxes are high and we need to do something to keep people from being basically priced out of their homes due to property taxes.
"We have to find a way to be fair to our property owners and try to hold their costs down, and yet fund the basic needs, public education being one of the very basic needs of the state.
"Unfortunately, because of the structure of the way education is funded, it's been a growing burden on the local property owner and less of a burden on the state over the last several years. We have to get that balance back, so that the state is picking up the proper share of funding public education," VanDeaver said.
Hughes agreed, adding that keeping education spending cost-effective is the necessary first step.
"What we anticipate is taking the existing money in the school financing system and making sure it's being spent efficiently, plus bringing in some more state money," Hughes said.
VanDeaver admitted some qualms about trying to control local taxation from Austin, which could be seen as counter to conservative principles.
"I think that's what makes it so hard to do at the state level because this is really not a state tax; this is a local tax," VanDeaver said. "I've always felt that the best government is the local government and the one closest to the people, so that does give me a bit of heartburn to think that we're trying to regulate something that really belongs to the local entity."
Because Bonnen is expected to be more in harmony with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick than retiring speaker Rep. Joe Straus has been, property tax reform has a good chance of becoming a reality in 2019, Hughes said.
"I think it's going to get done this time," Hughes said.
VanDeaver agreed and said Bonnen would get his vote for speaker and his support.
"(Bonnen's speakership) alone is going to give a new tone to the session, I think, than might have been otherwise. I think he's going to do a great job, and yes, I committed to him early on when he was seeking commitments. He has a lot of experience, he's very sharp, and I look forward to working with him," VanDeaver said.
Both Hughes and VanDeaver spoke about specific bills they have authored or are working on.
Hughes advocated for a bill that would hold any state agency responsible for a citizen's legal expenses if the agency is found to have pursued a frivolous enforcement action against them.
"We want some way to level the playing field, because when you're fighting the government, when you're fighting a government agency, they're fighting you and they're using your money against you. It's not a fair fight at all.
"So the bill we're working on says this: If an agency pursues an action against you and you beat them, you beat them at the administrative level, you beat them in court, if at the end of that process the judge finds that what the agency did was frivolous, if they had no reason to do that to you, the agency should have to pay your attorney's fees and your expenses," Hughes said.
VanDeaver so far has authored six bills addressing a variety of issues:
n House Bill 330 would change education policy so public school students who leave school because of illness or injury are no longer counted as dropouts, which can decrease a school district's state funding. The problem disproportionately affects small, rural districts, VanDeaver said.
In a small district, "one child makes a huge difference when you're talking about percentages. So what we're trying to do there is give them some relief so that they're not held accountable for something that's totally out of their control and just a very unfortunate situation," he said.
n House Bill 331 would require the Department of State Health Services' Medical Advisory Board, which assists the Department of Public Safety in determining if a license applicant is capable of driving safely, to comply with the state's open meetings law. The bill came from a constituent's bad experience with the process, VanDeaver said.
"We found that they were very dysfunctional, so this is just an effort to try to encourage them to do a better job of reviewing and taking the job a little more seriously than maybe what we have observed through this process," he said.
n House Bills 396 and 397 would allow school districts to spend state instructional materials funds on software that tracks instructional material inventory.
"That software actually helps us as a state protect our resources because we're able to keep up with the instructional materials and do a better job of accounting for them. I think it's just something to allow a little more freedom for our school districts to be able to have that software so they are able to operate more efficiently," VanDeaver said.
n House Bill 418 would exempt U.S. attorneys' and assistant U.S. attorneys' personal information from disclosure under open records laws. Many other elected and government officials already have that protection.
"It's just to provide them a level of safety and security. In this day and time, through their work they're going to have some people upset with them, and we don't want people to be able to get their home address," VanDeaver said.
n House Bill 497 would add instruction on ammunition to the classroom training requirements for a license to carry a firearm.
The type of ammunition used "can have serious effects on the results if they happen to have to fire their firearm. It's certainly not limiting anyone to using certain ammunition. It's really just to educate people who are going to be carrying a handgun, you need to think about what kind of ammunition you have," VanDeaver said.
VanDeaver was elected in 2014 to represent House District 1, which includes all of Bowie, Franklin, Lamar and Red River counties. He is a member of the Public Education Committee and the Appropriations Committee. Prior to his election to the House, he was a rural educator for more than 30 years, serving most recently as superintendent of New Boston Independent School District.
Hughes served for 14 years in the Texas House of Representatives before his election to the state Senate in 2016. He represents Senate District 1, which comprises 16 counties in Northeast Texas including Bowie County. His term expires in 2020. He chairs the Senate's Select Committee on Election Security and serves as vice chairman of its State Affairs Committee. A graduate of Baylor University Law School, Hughes practices law in East Texas.