AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Time is running short at the Capitol. The pace is picking up as lawmakers work toward deals on priority legislation like school finance and property tax reform. One deal that’s still pending is the budget. That’s the one that the Texas constitution says has to get done.
Right now, the budget legislation is in the hands of a conference committee. It’s made up of five Senate Republicans along with three Republicans and two Democrats from the House.
Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) is leading the negotiations on the House side. “We’re really about halfway through that process,” he said during an interview on the State of Texas program. Zerwas anticipates having the bill voted out of committee sometime after Mother’s Day, then on the floor of each chamber just before Memorial Day.
One complication to the negotiations is the way that unresolved legislation for school finance and property tax reform are intertwined with the budget. Zerwas said there are key questions about how to increase funds for public schools and keep a lid on property taxes. “Where we have a lot of conversation now is how do you pay for this in the future?” Zerwas said.
One idea is to raise the state’s sales tax and use the money raised to pay for property tax relief. It’s backed by the “big three” state leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.
“The reason there is a lot of interest in that is that it generates a lot of money,” Zerwas said. He estimates the one percent increase in the sales tax would bring in $5 billion a year. “If you look at it from that standpoint, for a biennium for $10 billion you can do a lot to make sure you keep property tax relief in place and you can do a lot to fund our public schools on a go forward basis.”
If the sales tax proposal is approved, Texas voters would have the final say. The proposal would go on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment. But it’s not clear now whether the idea has enough support to get out of the House.
“I think we’re still working on that,” Zerwas said. “I think there are some people that are very concerned about this because they’ve heard from their constituents that they don’t want a one-cent sales tax, you know a sales tax increase.” But the backing of the “big three” could help win over some lawmakers. “I like to say it’s nice to have the cover of the Governor, the Speaker, and the Lieutenant Governor to do these kinds of things,” Zerwas said.
Despite the looming deadline of the end of the session, Zerwas said he’s confident the budget deal will get done on time. He said the work is being done in “a very concuducive atmosphere” in the conference committee. “It’s not me trying to win over you. It’s trying to get to where is the right place for the state of Texas.”