Is Texas as Free as the Freest State? 84th Legislative Session Recap

Lawmakers headed home leaving Austin behind.  The 84th Legislative session of 2015 is over. Were changes made to benefit every Texan?

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT:  Texans chose to elect more conservatives, so we gained more conservative results than we did in the 2013 legislative session.

Hard-working Texans grew the economy, which grew the amount of taxes sent to Austin. Financial stewardship of your money was improved, although corporate welfare, waste, and accounting gimmicks linger in the budget. The economy allowed for enhanced spending on border security, schools, roads, the teacher’s health care system, and provided raises for correctional officers at our prisons. New tax cuts will benefit homeowners, and businesses that pay franchise taxes. Stronger spending limitations failed to pass. Gun laws moved closer to the Second Amendment, while some nervous politicians took a shot at the First.  Unsatisfactory gains were made to protect pre-born children from abortion, and an effort to reinforce marriage laws against judicial overreach failed altogether. Drug cartel activity and illegal aliens pouring into Texas require a bold, speedy state response. Instead there will be a gradual buildup of DPS manpower and equipment on the border, yielding a positive, but incremental, approach to border security.

On the whole, state government expanded in some areas, but freedom gained some ground too. Improvements over the 2013 legislative session are measurable, but liberty-minded Texans want a stronger standard as the goal. Restore the Christian principles of our Founders, greater adherence to the Constitution, and more liberty.

“[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

– John Adams, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and 2nd U.S. President

“[T]he Christian religion – its general principles – must ever be regarded among us as the foundation of civil society.”

– Daniel Webster, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State

What standard will shape the future of Texas?  Lawmakers get to hear from you, and Texans will decide at the ballot box in 2016.

Click on any topic below to skip ahead:

PRO-LIFE EFFORTS
BORDER SECURITY
EDUCATION
HIGHWAY FUNDING IMPROVED
GUN RIGHTS
SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
FIRST AMENDMENT ATTACK
TAX RELIEF
BUDGET MATTERS
FIGHTING REGULATIONS ON WORKERS
ARTICLE 5 CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION
FOOD STAMP FRAUD PHOTO ID BILL
CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM
CANNABIS OIL FOR EPILEPSY
PLANNED PARENTHOOD DEFUNDED
STATE RETIREMENT BENEFITS
CORRECTIONAL OFFICER PAY RAISE
LOCAL MATTERS
MATT’S ASSESSMENT

PRO-LIFE EFFORTS

Protecting the sanctity of life from conception to natural death is at the top of Rep. Schaefer’s priorities. Some key pro-life bills failed to pass or get a vote, which means the Legislature deserves a poor grade on this effort. However, bills were passed to reform the process where minors can obtain abortion without parental consent, and better protections were put in place to ensure life-sustaining treatments like hydration and nutrition are not wrongfully withheld from sick and aged patients. Many pro-life Texans don’t want to pay for abortions by subsidizing coverage for others through their health insurance premiums. A bill to require health insurance companies to sell abortion coverage separately failed to reach the House floor for a vote due to stalling by some House leaders. Rep. Schaefer put forward an amendment to a health agency bill which would end late-term abortions because of a diagnosis of “severe fetal abnormalities.” Rep. Schaefer believes that the disabled deserve the same protection inside the womb that they receive once born. Many other states have outlawed this practice, but Texas remains behind. Rep. Schaefer’s amendment passed with a solid majority, but Democrats retaliated by killing the whole bill using a technical objection.  When the bill returned to the House floor weeks later, it had been re-written so that Schaefer’s amendment would no longer be “germane,” or topically relevant to the bill and unable to be attached.

BORDER SECURITY

Border security funding was greatly increased with a slow approach to putting more boots on the border. 250 new DPS troopers will be hired over two years, but 800 TX National Guard troops were sent home. Human trafficking laws were strengthened, and technology will be used to monitor the border to a greater extent. Illegal crossings remain at a high level (4,500+ are caught each week along the Texas border as of this summer, and many are released by federal authorities) and cartel violence in Mexico is at crisis level. Texas lawmakers should not claim that we have secured the border, but we have taken positive steps.  While e-verify will be implemented in Texas government agencies, there were no major reforms passed to address “magnets” for illegal aliens, such as banning sanctuary cities.  Driver’s licenses for illegal aliens did not pass despite an effort by a top Republican in the House who pushed the idea. Rep. Schaefer will continue to fight for enhanced security on our state’s border and for policies that put the safety of Texans first.

EDUCATION

Subject matter experts like engineers, builders, master plumbers, and nurses will no longer be prohibited from teaching vocational classes because they didn’t return to college to obtain teaching certificates. Local schools will now be able to hire highly-qualified career and technology teachers who may not have a traditional education degree. Rep. Schaefer worked hard on this reform with help from local school superintendents and business owners. The bill he authored was included in a larger education bill signed by Governor Abbott!

School accountability ratings will change next year. With less reliance on standardized testing, the legislature decided to move to a simpler A-F “grading” system for ranking our public schools. Districts will have an overall grade, and individual campuses will be graded as well. With a simple glance, parents and taxpayers will know generally where the schools stand.

Overall education funding increased, with some minor reforms to how public schools operate.  A short-term financial patch to the teacher’s healthcare system bought some time, but major shortfalls loom on the horizon. Like most schools, Tyler, Chapel Hill, Whitehouse, and Bullard (schools in District 6) will all see funding increases. Many people may question why nothing was done to overhaul the school finance system as a whole.  However, the Texas Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal of the decision in the school finance lawsuit from a few years ago.  Legislative leadership has been hesitant to act on school finance as a whole until a court decision is final. Funding at four year colleges increased as a whole. Tyler Junior College saw a small decrease in funding due to the funding formula, part of which reimburses community colleges based upon contact hours with students. Around the state, contact hours for community colleges were down due to an improved economy where people returned to the workforce in greater numbers.

HIGHWAY FUNDING IMPROVED

TxDOT will now be required to provide progress reports to state lawmakers to evaluate how well the department is operating. These new rules are aimed at providing transparency for TxDOT distribution of funds for infrastructure projects around the state. It will also help to prioritize projects based on need, not on politics.

Taxes collected for roads should be used for roads. Lawmakers ended the practice of “diversions” of fuel taxes and registration fees from the state’s highway fund to support agencies including the Dept. of Public Safety and the Dept. of Motor Vehicles. These agencies will now be funded through general revenue, leaving the highway fund with an extra $1.3 billion over the next two years.

New laws will give TxDOT over $5 billion in dedicated transportation funding. This funding will come from existing sources such as the sales tax, the motor vehicle sales tax, and fuel taxes. Currently, every time you buy a car, the state collects a 6.25% sales tax. However, the $4 billion currently collected in vehicle sales taxes by the state is deposited into the state’s general revenue fund and may be used for any purpose in the state’s budget. New laws will dedicate a portion of the vehicle sales tax specifically for transportation, if voters approve an amendment to the State Constitution when they vote in November.   This additional funding is accomplished without increasing taxes and without additional reliance on debt.

GUN RIGHTS

Gun legislation brought an expansion of freedom which will put Texas closer to the heart of the  Second Amendment. Regrettably, Texas will still lag behind some other states. The “Open Carry” bill for licensed handgun holders passed as well as a weakened bill allowing concealed carry of handguns on public college campuses. Rep. Schaefer passed an amendment to the Open Carry bill which will lower the penalty for inadvertently entering a place that displays a sign prohibiting handguns (aka 30.06 notice).  Currently, this unintentional act could result in serious jail time and permanent loss of the person’s handgun license. The punishment didn’t fit the crime.

Click here to watch an explanation of the new Open Carry and Campus Carry laws, including changes to the “30.06 notice” created by Rep. Schaefer’s amendment.

Constitutional rights for Texans to carry a rifle without obtaining a license or paying a fee remain firmly in place. The distinction requiring a license is simply length of the barrel. Unfortunately, efforts to extend that right for guns with shorter barrels were blocked at every turn. It is a fact that constitutional rights to keep and bear arms are weaker in Texas than in some other states.

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

Marriage between one man and one woman needed Texas-sized reinforcements, in the shadow of a Supreme Court ruling soon to be announced. But House and Senate leaders failed to act. Supreme Court Justices watch carefully the actions of the states and resistance from large states like Texas could have had a big impact on their decision.  Instead of a loud message ringing in the ears of Justice Anthony Kennedy (the likely swing vote), there was deafening silence from Texas.  Those of us who care deeply about preserving marriage as instituted by God, proven by thousands of years of human history, and written in our Texas Constitution were vocal on the issue. But key Republican leaders are not willing to fight the trend. It was a major disappointment.  We also saw a top Republican push for same-sex couples to be added as “parents” to a child’s birth certificate, rather than listing the biological father and mother as current law requires.  Republican primary elections in 2016 will be the next battle ground.

FIRST AMENDMENT ATTACK

First Amendment rights came under bi-partisan attack from House lawmakers who want to expose their critics in the name of so-called transparency. An embarrassing “ethics” bill seeking to force private organizations like Texas Right to Life to disclose their donors passed the Texas House, but fortunately the Senate stopped the unconstitutional bill in its tracks. This bill would have  also created a special privilege only for Legislators by prohibiting the filming or recording of legislators without their consent. Rep. Schaefer offered an amendment to strip the special privilege for legislators, arguing that elected officials should have the same rules as every other Texan. His amendment came close to passage, but failed on a close vote. Current law already requires donations to political candidates and political action committees to be publicly disclosed.  But many liberty-minded conservatives voted against this bill that would have  exposed donors of private organizations simply because they take positions on controversial public policy issues.

TAX RELIEF

The only certain way for Texas government to restrain spending, is to collect less money from the people. Over the last  two years, Texas collected a lot of money from the private sector due to a stronger economy.  Tax relief was needed, but there was much debate over how to do it.  Ultimately, relief came as an increase in the property tax homestead exemption from $15,000 to $25,000 for the 2015 tax year if voters approve a constitutional change, and an across-the-board 25% decrease in the franchise tax on businesses.  Property owners concerned about rising appraisal values wiping out tax relief are urged to talk to local government officials who make those decisions.  State government will reimburse local government entities for the loss of tax value from the increased homestead exemption.

BUDGET MATTERS

The budget passed with strong Republican support, while a majority of Democrats voted no.  Overall spending grew, but not faster than the economic well-being of Texans.  One conservative measuring stick is for spending to stay below the sum of population increase plus inflation, which was 6.5%.  Texas government spending for all funds grew 5.8%.  Highway construction and maintenance will see greater funding without reliance on new debt.  Correctional guards at our prisons received a much-needed pay raise. Mental health funding continues to be emphasized. The Texas Rainy Day Fund was not tapped and has grown to a balance of $11 billion. Corporate welfare remains a problem in the budget, but grew only slightly. Budget amendments to eliminate corporate welfare items like direct subsidies to the film industry were defeated, but fortunately, some funding to that subsidy was cut.  Accounting gimmicks have been used for years to “balance” the budget. Reliance upon them was reduced in 2013, and again this year.

TX State Budget Pie Chart

FIGHTING REGULATIONS ON WORKERS

Texans should have the right to work without interference from burdensome government regulations. Fighting new regulations was a major commitment for Rep. Schaefer and he has the scars to prove it.  He worked particularly hard to stop new “occupational licensing” expansion, where Republicans are often the worst offenders. These regulations increase prices,  decrease competition, and do not ensure public health or safety. Unfortunately, restrictions on skilled trades and workers have been expanding in Texas in recent years. The new rules are always requested, not by public outcry, but by the industry seeking to keep out competitors   by obtaining a government seal of approval.  Conservatives are making progress in this area. For example, a bill was defeated that would have added stricter regulations and fees on sign language interpreters. Additionally, several existing regulations were abolished that required hair braiders to hold a license, Thanks to many conservatives, fewer new occupational regulations passed during this legislative session than in any session in recent memory.

ARTICLE 5 CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION

The Texas House passed two resolutions calling for an Article 5, Constitutional Convention of the States.  HJR 77 called for fiscal restraints on the federal government, limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and imposing term limits on members of Congress.  HJR 79 proposed a federal balanced budget amendment.  Despite support in the House, neither one of these resolutions received a public hearing in the Senate.

FOOD STAMP FRAUD PHOTO ID BILL

Fraudulent use of food stamp cards (aka Lonestar Cards) topped $20 million in Texas in 2014. And that is just what was caught.  Currently, Lonestar Cards have no name or photo on them, and are known to be sold for cash or traded. Rep. Schaefer worked with Democrat Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso to joint-author a bill to require the recipient’s name, photo ID, fraud hotline number, and the words “Paid for by taxpayers,” on the card.  Massachusetts recently added photo ID to their food stamp cards. Unfortunately, the bill stalled in committee. Rep. Schaefer will continue to push this common sense measure to restore integrity to the food stamp program.

CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM

Under current law, if an innocent person’s property is seized by law enforcement because it was used by someone else during an alleged criminal act, that person must prove in court that he or she didn’t know, or should not have known, that the property was going to be used to further a criminal act. Rep. Schaefer believes this is unconstitutional because the legal burden in all criminal matters should be on the state, not the citizen, to prove wrongdoing. Innocent property owners have been hurt by this law. Drawing wisdom from the dissent written by  TX Supreme Court Justice Willett, in Zaher El-Ali vs. Texas, Rep. Schaefer introduced a bill to shift the burden to the government where innocent owners have had their property seized.  The bill passed out of the Criminal Jurisprudence committee, but stalled in the Calendars committee.

CANNABIS OIL FOR EPILEPSY

Texas joins more than a dozen states that have recently legalized treating severe forms of epilepsy with cannabis oils low in etrahydrocannabinol (THC) and high in cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive component of marijuana. Before becoming eligible for treatment under the new law, patients must have been unresponsive to traditional epilepsy medications, and have secured the approval of two doctors. Neurologists and epileptologists will be the only physicians authorized to prescribe the medication. The new law is narrowly tailored to apply only to those with severe epileptic conditions.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD DEFUNDED

The newly adopted state budget prohibits Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from delivering sex education school curriculum to Texas public schools, and prohibits them from teaching such programs in classrooms across the state. This ensures that Texas taxpayers are not providing free marketing and new business to the abortion industry through our public schools.

Additionally, abortion providers will now be prohibited from providing services under the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program.  Numerous other providers are available around the state to provide these important services for women.  In 2014 Planned Parenthood received $1.2 million in state tax dollars from the screening program.  In the new budget, Planned Parenthood is no longer qualified as a primary provider to participate in the cancer screening program and will no longer receive state funding. Pro-life Texans have made it abundantly clear that they do not want their tax dollars supporting the mission of abortion providers.

STATE RETIREMENT BENEFITS

Public pension systems were also given a funding boost.  As retired teachers and state employees live longer after retirement than ever before, system finances are under strain.  The rising cost of health care, which is a national problem, is also hitting Texas’ pension systems very hard.  Over $768 million in additional  funding was allocated to the health care fund of the Teachers’ Retirement System.  Other bills were passed to require an interim study of TRS health care, both for active teachers and retired teachers.

The unfunded liabilities of the Employees Retirement System for state employees was also addressed.  Employee contributions into the system will be increased by 2%, and state employees will receive a raise to offset the increased cost.  This will help put ERS on track to actuarial soundness.  Although state pension systems will be much improved, there is still work to be done.

CORRECTIONAL OFFICER PAY RAISE

Correctional officers at state prisons will see an 8% pay increase.  Entry level pay for correctional officers has historically been low and coupled with high turnover.  This leads to increased training costs for new employees, and operational concerns at prison facilities.

LOCAL MATTERS

Rep. Schaefer worked on bills of local interest which saw some success.  Decades old rules were changed so that the City of Tyler will be able to compete for sewer service with the Tall Timbers sewage utility in the area within the city limits. A planned convention center for Tyler will be able to retain sales and hotel taxes collected on site for a period of 10 years in order to offset the construction cost of the publicly owned facility. Tyler Jr. College will be able to offer a  four year degree program to dental hygiene students.  All these bills passed with great credit due to Sen. Eltife and Rep. Clardy for an East Texas team effort.

MATT’S ASSESSMENT

While there were serious disappointments on major issues like abortion, marriage, and corporate welfare, I believe it is fair to say that on some big issues the pull was in the direction of limited government.  Concerned Texans getting involved in politics deserve credit for that. Overall I see progress as measured against the disappointing 2013 session.  Liberty-minded conservatives want a higher standard. We can’t let issues we hold dear be pushed to the back, while the progressive agenda pushes forward. Border security measures are moving too slow by my estimation. The border problem is very serious. Order and the rule of law must replace turmoil and tragedy.  Public schools must receive constant attention.  Government waste and abuse must be countered. Unnecessary regulations must be opposed. Reforms in criminal justice must be implemented.

The House “ethics bill” was an embarrassment and a gross effort to erode first amendment freedoms to speak and to petition your government for a redress of grievances. It was a blatant attempt to expose the donors of groups like Texas Right to Life and Empower Texans who advocate for unborn children and fiscal responsibility. We have transparency for those spending money to elect  lawmakers.  We should have privacy for those spending money to speak about the law upon which the lawmakers vote. The bill would have also created a special law to make it illegal to record politicians when you are talking to them, unless they gave you permission. But no such protections exist for ordinary Texans! They could record you, but not the other way around. My amendment to strip that provision was narrowly defeated. Imagine where we would be in this country if politicians were able to close the wallets of critics who advocate on controversial issues, and to muzzle citizen journalists exposing government misconduct. The Federalist Papers were published under pen names, and so were the scathing editorials against the KKK written by the publisher of the Houston Chronicle in the 1920’s. Anonymous speech by private citizens is healthy! Giving money to organizations to speak on your behalf is no different.  I like the adage, “Transparency for government, privacy for citizens.”

Much work lies ahead, yet it is beneficial to look back a few years. Historically speaking, House Republicans are just getting started and our large majority has only been around since 2011.  As recently as 2009 the House was split 76 Rs and 74 Ds.  It wasn’t until 2003 that Republicans led the House for the first time since the era of post-civil war Reconstruction. The Texas Senate is now unquestionably more conservative due to pressure from liberty-minded Texans.

On a personal note, with God’s leading and your support, I am anxious to continue the fight in Austin! In the 13th year of our marriage Jasilyn and I had our first child the week before I left for Austin. God gave us Miss Quincy Schaefer and renewed my energy to ensure Texas has a free and bright future! It is a high honor and privilege to serve the citizens of District 6.  Let’s work together for liberty!

– Matt Schaefer

State Representative, District 6

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