AUSTIN (Nexstar) — While a special session is already in progress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are already thinking about the redistricting session which will occur later this year once the census data is released.
To prepare, the House Redistricting Committee has held public hearings focused on needs in Houston, El Paso and San Antonio. These hearings are meant to allow Texans to share their thoughts on the process and the outcomes they want to see.
State Sen. Carol Alvarado, Sen. José Menéndez, and Rep. James White, who are all on their respective chamber’s redistricting committees, also shared their insights.
Menéndez, D-San Antonio, stressed the importance of keeping communities within the same district.
“My constituents have called and written and sent emails and redistricting is important because they want to have a district and representatives that have the same values, the same sense of community,” said Menéndez. “They don’t want to see districts drawn where they go all the way from Austin to the valley, because nothing against any community, but people in the valley have different sets of issues sometimes then people in Austin.”
Rep. White, R-Hillister, echoed the sentiment that rural Texas does not belong in the same district as major cities like Houston or Dallas.
“We want to make sure that we have adequate representation to tell our story about our infrastructure, our roads, our broadband access; tell our story about our rural schools and farming and ranching and how that is important to the state,” explained White.
The lawmakers agreed their constituents don’t want a gerrymandered state.
Menéndez put it simply. His constituents “want to be able to have the right to elect the people that they want to elect, not have districts drawn that force them to have [specific] elected officials.”
Rep. White explained that there are several rules in place to help prevent gerrymandering from occurring. One of these is the county whole rule, which is to the extent possible, a district should encompass a whole county, instead of cutting through it.
State Sen. Alvarado, D-Houston, also recalled redistricting often ends in litigation.
“This always ends in court and the courts have always ruled on our [Democrats] side, and the people’s side, that there has been intentional gerrymandering and discrimination in the process. So, we know that that’s probably worth where we will end up again,” asserted Alvarado.
Until lawmakers can see the census data and start working, Texans will not be able to debate whether lawmakers are intentionally gerrymandering the state, but it is likely Democrats and Republicans will quickly be accusing one another of drawing the lines to benefit their political parties.
It is expected that the redistricting session will be called shortly after the census data is released in September.
Plan for property tax relief pending at Capitol
A plan for property tax relief is among the items stalled at the Capitol amid the uncertainty surrounding the special session walkout.
Lawmakers from both parties agree on the need for relief, as homeowners around Texas have seen tax bills surge. Real estate brokerage Redfin said the average Austin metro area homeowner paid $277 more in property taxes in 2020 than they did in 2019.
That’s a much larger increase than the year before — around $5.
Resident Misael Ramos said it’s pushed some of his longtime neighbors out.
“Some of my neighbors have done like GoFundMes, as well as, like, just basic fundraisers to stay in their homes,” he said. “And to see those folks gone, it takes away from that culture, that charm.”
Realtor Zac Barger said there is one positive aspect.
“As a homeowner, your property value’s going up when your property taxes are going up, so overall your net worth is increasing,” Barger said, who works with Wise Property Group.
But he said short term, it means many are finding it hard to keep up.
“There’s definitely individuals I know that are in a tough situation, because they’ve lived in a house for 30-plus years and the taxes are, you know, extremely higher than what they were when they first purchased that home,” Barger said.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said funding for a property tax relief program will come from federal COVID-19 relief dollars and state revenue.
“The comptroller updated his biannual revenue estimate with an additional $7.5 billion that can be used for property tax relief or other items that the governor is seeing fit,” he said.
Ramos hopes lawmakers keep legacy families in mind when crafting a relief program.
“They’ve definitely put Austin on their back and developed it to where it is now,” Ramos said.
He’d also like to see some sort of abatement program or one that allows people to build additional dwelling units for low income families.
Cynthia Martinez, spokesperson for the Travis Central Appraisal District, said tax rates for this year have not yet been set. That’s usually done in the fall.
She said property owners will be able to view their potential tax bills around mid-August.
Martinez said that website will also be updated with hearing information, so neighbors can advocate for what they’d like their property taxes to look like.
She explained while TCAD does home appraisals, that is just one part of the property tax calculation. The total property tax rate “is largely determined by budgets set by taxing entities,” she said.
“An increase in market value does not necessarily mean an increase in property taxes,” she wrote in an email to KXAN.
Lawmakers face new fight over what students can learn about racism
Shortly after the end of the regular session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. Critical Race Theory is the concept that racism is systemic and upheld by inequality in the legal system.
House Bill 3979 does more than just ban Critical Race Theory, it prevents educators from teaching that anyone is inherently racist or speaking about current events, and requires students to read certain books about America’s founding. Critics of the bill point to a book on the list by Alexis de Tocqueville which includes a rationalization for slavery.
Gov. Abbott also believes that more needs to be done on the topic and called on lawmakers to revisit the issue during the special session.
Before the special session, two Texas representatives shared their thoughts on the issue. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from Southlake, near Dallas, supports the legislation. Rep. Mary González, a Democrat from Clint, near El Paso, opposes the bill.
Rep. Capriglione believes the rhetoric around HB 3979, and its effect on education, is being blown out of proportion.
Capriglione also claimed that HB 3979 will help remove bias from the classroom.
“At the end of the day, where we all must agree, and I think do agree, is that we should be able to teach history — the good, the bad and ugly — but also in the fairest, most honest, unbiased way possible. And you know, for me, that is what this bill does,” explained Capriglione.
González claims that HB 3979 is the result of a strategic political effort, not sound educational policy.
“The reality is our local schools aren’t teaching CRT. CRT is a graduate level academic theory,” González, who has a PhD in education, said.
“This is being used to talk about other things that people feel anxious about,” she added. “It’s just really trying to say we only want to teach one way, and that’s the only. It’s really handcuffing our teachers,” said González in her interview.
González is also worried about the impact the bill will have on the relationship between students and teachers.
“What happens if one of your students has experienced racism? And they come to you to talk about it? How will the teacher feel if they feel that they can’t talk to the student? And how will that relationship between the student and teacher really be impacted?,” she questioned.
Capriglione said he believes the legislation will improve communication in the classroom when it comes to controversial topics.
“You can’t have those conversations if some of the students, for instance, don’t feel that it’s appropriate for them to be involved in this conversation,” Capriglione said. “I think this actually ends up opening it up for even more dialogue, and more conversation about those issues.”
Hurricane planning gets boost from state lawmakers
In the days after Hurricane Harvey tore the roof off their Rockport, Texas home in the summer of 2017, Bronson and Linda Hamilton immediately started rebuilding.
The Hamiltons, who teach at area schools, spent the next three years and thousands of dollars returning their coastal cavern back to ship shape.
“It’s going to take a long time, it’s going to take a lot of money, a lot of hard work,” Bronson Hamilton said in an interview in what was left of his kitchen a few days after Harvey hit. “But Rockport is going to survive.”
As the state’s coastal communities attempt to return to some kind of normal, state lawmakers attempt to help prevent future storms from causing similar devastation to Harvey, which caused upwards of $125 billion in damage— second to Hurricane Katrina.
During the regular legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to create a Gulf Coast Protection District to take charge of planning for and constructing a coastal barrier to protect against storm surge. Senate Bill 1160 also creates framework for approval of coastal projects recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The legislation awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. He can choose to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without a signature.
“Living on the coast, you get the advantage of being able to go fish in the ocean a little easier and you got the beautiful sunrises and sunsets,” said State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who serves on the House’s Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee. “You get the coast vibe, but you also have hurricanes.”
Clardy said Texans who live in Southeast Texas have learned to prepare each year for disasters and bounce back.
“It’s remarkable how well we withstand very strong hurricanes,” he noted.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican whose Beaumont district often lies within the path of devastating storms, said the state’s legislative investments would strengthen the coast in the future.
“When they give you the list of names of hurricanes… it’s time, right?” Phelan said in a June 1 interview at his Capitol office.
Phelan cited the coastal spine, or “Ike Dike,” legislation as a solution to a decades-long “huge issue.” The nickname comes from Hurricane Ike, a 2008 storm that caused $38-billion in damage.
Projects like the Ike Dike drew bipartisan backing, and support that crossed regional boundaries.
“We know that these storms impact our state in so many ways, from environmental issues, to economic issues, you know, health and safety issues as well,” State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said. “So it’s not hard to be supportive of other regions.”
When the calendar flips to June, state agencies kick into gear reminding Texans about the potential for deadly storms.
“It’s all about preparedness,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said in an interview last week, adding that starting June 1, his office works to remind constituents to have a plan. “Whether it’s for evacuation or taking care of your most trusted documents and belongings, even if you have pets, making sure that they have a plan as well with the local kennel or local shelter because during Hurricane Harvey we saw massive amounts of pets die because they were neglected during the storm itself, and we had close to 100 deaths in our state.”
Both Bush, who heads the Texas General Land Office, and Seth Christensen, chief of media and communications at the Texas Division of Emergency Management, encouraged Texans to purchase insurance coverage to help recoup losses after damaging storms.
“It takes 30 days for that flood insurance policy to go into effect,” Christensen said. “So buying that flood insurance policy sooner rather than later is very important, especially because we’re now at the beginning of hurricane season and it only takes one storm to damage your home or your property.”
Meantime, the Hamiltons are grateful their Rockport respite is finally finished. Phelan, too, hopes for a quiet summer.
“I have a very resilient constituency, and we just, we get up each morning we put our boots on and we go back to work regardless of Mother Nature sends us,” Phelan said.