Texas 85th Legislative Session Begins

Jan 21, 2017, 15:51 PM by Ben Raimer
Ben’s Blog 2017 (#1); Jan 10
Texas 85th Legislative Session 
Look alert!  They’re back!

The Texas Legislature that is!  On Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, the House and the Senate gaveled to order for the start of the 85th Texas Legislative Session. Led by Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, 181 members of the Legislature will begin 140 days of deliberations that will impact the lives of Texans in ways they have not imagined.

The 31 members of the Texas Senate welcomed three new members: Sen. Dawn Buckingham, MD (R – Lakeway), Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) and Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola).  Sen. Buckingham is a UTMB School of Medicine graduate, has been a very active member and advocate of medicine through the Texas Medical Association (TMA), and practices occulo-plastic surgery in the Austin area. She joins another UTMB School of Medicine graduate and contemporary, Sen. Charles Schwertner, MD (R-Georgetown), who chairs the Senate’s powerful Health and Human Services Committee and also serves on the Senate Finance Committee. 

Senators also reaffirmed their simple majority rule for votes, refusing pleas from their Democratic members to return to the 2/3 rule of the pre-Patrick Senate. (In Texas, the Lt. Governor presides over the Senate.) They also selected Sen. Kel Seliger (R – Amarillo) as the President Pro-Tem of the body. The President Pro-Tem presides in absence of the Lt. Governor/President and assumes the position of “acting governor” if Abbott or Patrick are out of the state or incapacitated.

Leading the powerful Senate Finance Committee will be Sen. Jane Nelson (R – Flower Mound), who presided over that committee definitively during the past session. Nelson has been especially supportive of graduate medical education expansion in the past, and it was largely her work that resulted in the GME expansion in 2015. Senator Larry Taylor (R – Friendswood) was confirmed Wednesday by the Lt. Governor as the returning chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht had the honor of swearing in new members, and Governor Greg Abbott offered his congratulations to them. The Governor will deliver his “State of the State” address later on Jan. 31.

Over on the House side of the Capitol, members re-elected Representative Joe Straus (R – San Antonio) to his fifth term as Speaker in a unanimous 150 - 0 recorded vote. That historic vote included all 97 Republicans and 51 Democrats. Straus joins previous Speakers Pete Laney and Gib Lewis in this record setting fifth term as leader of the Texas House. Straus stressed the importance of members’ setting the agenda and pledged his support to addressing issues related to reforms in the Child Protective Services program, funding programs for disabled children and improving Texas’ educational systems.

The House members welcomed 21 new members, one of whom is Rep. Tom Oliverson, MD (R – Houston), who joins returning physician members Dr. John Zerwas (R – Simonton), Dr. Greg Bonnen (R – Friendswood), and Dr. J.D. Sheffield (R – Gatesville). You may recall that Dr. Bonnen is a UTMB SOM graduate and contemporary of both Sen. Buckingham and Sen. Schwertner. Dr. Sheffield did his family medicine internship at UTMB.

How they stack up!*





















Party Affiliation
















*From Sen. Nelson’s website newsletter.

Lawmakers have had a busy “interim” session with an endless barrage of hearings, special study groups, and legislative business over the 18 months since the 84th Session closed. They have already filed close to 1,400 bills. Expect that number to grow quickly to more than 5,000; only about 20 percent of filed bills make it through the arduous process of committee hearings, the Calendars Committee, hearings in the House and Senate, and consensus agreements that result in a final bill that passes both House and Senate and ultimately earns the Governor’s signature to become law.

This session, these bills are filed against a backdrop of budget challenges. The State Comptroller, Glenn Hegar, set a somber tone for the 85th Legislature earlier in the week with the release of his revenue estimate for the biennial budget. Hegar announced that lawmakers would have $104.87 billion in state funds to cover the state’s budget needs over the next two years. This represents a 2.7 percent decrease from the budget passed by the Legislature in May 2015. Hegar attributed the decrease in available funds to slower-than-anticipated economic growth, the much-touted decrease in taxes from oil production, and the re-direction of $5 billion to the Texas Department of Transportation to fund critical infrastructure needs. 

Although the state’s Rainy Day Fund has $11.9 billion, lawmakers have been reluctant to tap those funds to meet budget needs.

Last session, the Legislature started with $7.5 billion in funds left over from the prior session, but this time the residual starting cash amounts to less than $1.53 billion. Supplemental funds are needed to cover expenditures in the prior budget that were in excess of those designated. Costs associated with the growth of Medicaid alone could outstrip the surplus from last session, even before a number of other pressing needs in health care, education, corrections and human services are considered.

To say that it is going to be a tough budget year is a gross understatement. In order to address the shortfall, the Legislative Budget Board issued instructions for all state agencies, except those dealing with Child Protective Services and Behavioral Health Care Services, to prepare a budget with a 4 percent reduction. 

Those 4 percent reductions weigh heavily on many critical UTMB programs, including funding of indigent health care, primary care physician training activities, Area Health Education Centers, community education programming, and funding for UTMB’s multi-share health program. Since UTMB receives funding not only in the education articles of the state budget, but also through Health and Human Services and Criminal Justice, UTMB experiences “triple jeopardy” at budget time. UTMB is facing more than $22 million in reductions unless legislative action mitigates the cuts.


UTMB’s Legislative Agenda

With that background information, you should be able to anticipate our 2017 legislative request:

  1. Please do not reduce our funding by 4 percent.
  2. Please base our future health care funding on a hospital-specific formula like other health-related institutions.
  3. Please provide additional support for our educational, research and infrastructure formula funding.
  4. Please assist us in the enhancement of our programs of excellence in infectious diseases.

Other issues to watch!

In addition to keeping an eye on the expected $5 billion budget shortfall, expect the Legislature to spend some time discussing the passage of bills related to the following:

  • Sanctuary Cities—Some members would like to ban them, but there is some debate as to how to define them. In general, the term refers to cities that have decided not to enforce federal immigration laws.
  • Photo IDs—Some members want to strengthen this requirement in order for citizens to vote.
  • Texas Privacy Act—The so-called “bathroom bill” would require Texans to use the bathroom consistent with their gender assignment at birth
  • Abortion and Fetal Tissue Burial—The goal is to ban certain abortion practices, increase criminal penalties for buying and selling human fetal tissue, and require that fetal tissue be buried or cremated.
  • Child Protective Services—Substantial reforms to what a federal court has termed a “broken system” are being called for. Reforms include the addition of staff, training and salary increments to ensure a safer and more accountable program for the custody of children.
  • Ethics Reform—Legislation would address campaign finance reform.
  • School Choice—The issue of school choice and/or public vouchers for private schools is highly controversial, particularly among public school supporters.
  • Property Tax Reform—Expect a lengthy discussion between the state legislature and the local school districts, cities, counties and local taxing authorities, because property taxes fund local governments.   So when the state reduces those taxes, the local entities have to increase tax rates … and they get the blame!
  • Transparency—Shining a light on how local and state governments spend taxpayer funds will be another opportunity for disagreement.
  • Sunset of Health Licensure Boards—Expect some heated debates related to scope of practice in the health professions.
  • Guns—Again, expect more debate regarding acceptable restrictions related to the right to carry.

Whatever adjective you chose to describe the 85th Texas Legislature, the word “dull” should not come to mind. Expect a lot of debate—and a wild ride!